Demagogues Like Trump Pose 'Profound Threat To Human Rights,' Watchdog Says

"Echo chambers of falsehoods are not inevitable," a Human Rights Watch report says.
Credit: Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

A leading human rights group warns of the worldwide threat posed by the rise of populist leaders like U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

Human Rights Watch, in its annual World Report released on Thursday, pointed to “the rise of leaders who, claiming to speak for ‘the people’ amid rising public discontent over the status quo, reject rights as an impediment to their perception of the majority will.”

“The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of the group, said in a statement. “Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism. They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny.”

Trump features prominently in the report, which summarizes human rights issues in more than 90 countries from late 2015 to November 2016. The president-elect is listed alongside notorious political strongmen, including Syria’s Bashar Assad, Russian President Vladamir Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

“Certain politicians are flourishing and even gaining power by portraying rights as protecting only the terrorist suspect or the asylum seeker at the expense of the safety, economic welfare, and cultural preferences of the presumed majority,” Roth said in an essay with the report. “They scapegoat refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities. Truth is a frequent casualty.”

Politicians touting nationalistic agendas have been making waves in recent years in many Western countries. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right party, is running for the country’s presidency. Equally conservative parties in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have garnered major support.

““They scapegoat refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities. Truth is a frequent casualty.””

Akshaya Kumar, deputy United Nations director at Human Rights Watch, said many of these populist leaders boast about their abuses as a strategy to discredit detractors. “The ‘shameless’ do not seek to hide their abuses or the policies that underpin them, but instead flaunt them as electoral or recruitment tools,” Kumar wrote.

She pointed to a statement last year by the Philippines’ Duterte, who said he “didn’t care about human rights” when questioned about a government policy to shoot drug dealers.

Roth said the past year foreshadowed a “dangerous trend [that] threatens to reverse the accomplishments of the modern human rights movement.” He called for a “vigorous reaffirmation and defense of the basic values underpinning” these rights, and pointed to the need to stamp out so-called fake news.

“Lies do not become truth just because propagated by an army of internet trolls or a legion of partisans,” Roth wrote. “Echo chambers of falsehoods are not inevitable. Facts remain powerful, which is why autocrats go to such lengths to censor those who report inconvenient truths, especially about human rights abuse.”

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