IT’S been a pretty rough 12 months. Global political rights and civil liberties are at their lowest point in over a decade, press freedom feels like it’s in freefall, and, despite the world’s collective longing, Donald Trump remains in the White House.
It’s easy to feel beaten down and disillusioned by this continual onslaught, and the release of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report can only have reinforced this sense of powerlessness in the face of rising authoritarianism.
The findings of the report will come as little surprise to anyone who’s so much as glanced at a newspaper in the last couple of years. All the usual suspects were there.
Kenneth Roth, head of HRW, warned of authoritarian leaders across the globe being emboldened after Donald Trump’s first year in office.
Nowhere does this seem more evident than parts of Asia-Pacific.
The civil and political rights environment in Cambodia markedly deteriorated under Prime Minister Hun Sen, as the political opposition was dissolved and its leader jailed. Prominent independent media outlets were shuttered and rights activists were arrested.
Burma enjoyed its first full year under a democratically elected civilian government; although at times it was hard to tell. The military remained the primary power-holder, the government increasingly used repressive laws to prosecute critics, and then, of course, there’s the notable issue of ethnic cleansing.
On top of that you’ve got Prayuth Chan-o-cha of Thailand finding any excuse under the sun to postpone elections and cling to power; Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte condoning the slaughter of poor people as part of his drug war and shutting new sites; Najib Razak’s government continuing its crackdown on critical voices and human rights defenders, while championing a less tolerant approach to Islam in Malaysia.
These are just some of the greatest hits. I’m sure there’s more; feel free to insert name here:
“[INSERT NAME] quashed human rights, clamped down on freedom of expression, and imprisoned those who voiced dissent.” – It’s a fairly reliable formula, straight out of the dictator handbook.
Have I lost you yet? If you’re feeling that creeping sense of helplessness needling its way into your psyche, that’s understandable. But let me stop you there because, while the HRW report didn’t make for pleasant reading, they did offer up a glimmer of hope in all the madness.
The pushback that’s rising in response to this wave of populism is starting to take effect.
In his introduction to the new report, Roth writes that when strong voices in government can combine with mobilised publics to fight for human rights principles, the position of anti-rights governments can be disrupted and their rise no longer inevitable.
“The central lesson of the past year is that despite the considerable headwinds, the defense of human rights can succeed if the proper efforts are made,” says Roth.
The scapegoating of vulnerable minorities that is so common in the rhetoric of these strongmen, acts as a reminder to others of the value of human rights that so many of us have thus far taken for granted.
It is this realisation, and the movements that spring from it, that are the greatest threat to the populist politician.
While it can be tempting to sit back and watch the world burn because dealing with it all is just too exhausting, now is really the time to start to fight back. We cannot afford to become despondent and embrace the inevitability of it all. As Roth says, the troubling state of world politics should be “a call to action rather than a cry of despair.”
Each of us will have a part to play if we want to change the direction of the populist surge. We have to, as Roth says:
“Where capitulation meets their message of hate and exclusion, the populists flourish.”
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent