Human Rights Watch: 2023 was characterised by crises

Various women in a truck in Afghanistan
Women’s rights have been massively restricted in many places as seen in Afghanistan, for example, HRW reports. (Source: IMAGO / Kyodo News)

2023 was characterised by some of the worst crises and challenges in recent history. This conclusion was made by the organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) in their current “World Report 2024.” Heads of states and governments frequently failed to advocate for the protection of human rights.

The organisation documents in their 740 page long “World Report” the situation for human rights in over 100 countries. The 34th edition of the annual report was published this year.

HRW complains that the armed conflicts between the Israeli government and the terror organisation Hamas, in Ukraine, in Myanmar, in Ethiopia and in the Sahel region have caused immeasurable suffering. Additionally, 2023 was the hottest year since the beginning of globally recorded temperatures in 1880. Numerous forest fires, droughts and storms have caused devastating damage in countries like Bangladesh, Libya and Canada. Economic inequality has also increased across the world.

In her keynote essay, Tirana Hassan, Executive Director at HRW, criticises that 2023 has also been a year with selective outrage by governments and transactional diplomacy. For people whose voices were not heard, it could have far-reaching consequences.

“The international system that we rely on to protect human rights is under threat as world leaders look the other way when universal principles of human rights are violated,” said Hassan. “Every time a country overlooks these universal and globally accepted principles, someone pays a price, and that price is sometimes peoples’ lives.”

Repressive policy of the Chinese government

The fact that human rights sometimes fall victim to politics can be seen, for example, when many governments fail to address increasing oppression from the Chinese government.

According to HRW, the Chinese government continues to persecute Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. This constitutes a crime against humanity – however, many governments, also in predominately Muslim countries, remain silent on the topic.

The Chinese government has imposed drastic measures for information control in Tibet, making it difficult to obtain news from the region. And in Hong Kong, civil rights have been abandoned with arbitrary arrests for alleged national security offences. Bounties were even offered for 13 exiled democracy activists. Throughout China, the government has placed civil society under even stricter control.

Education bans for Afghan girls

In Afghanistan, oppression has also increased, according to HRW. In particular, women are suffering under the Taliban. Additionally, the economic crisis in the country has resulted in about two-thirds of the population becoming dependant on humanitarian aid.

Fereshta Abbasi from HRW stated: “The Taliban have responded to demands from Afghans for rights and accountability with more repression, especially for women and girls”

According to the report, Afghanistan was the only country in 2023 where women and girls are officially banned from attending secondary and higher education. Furthermore, the Taliban also used excessive force against demonstrations by women and arrested protestors arbitrarily. In some cases, they were detailed for weeks without contact to the outside world.

It only recently became known that since the beginning of the year the Taliban also has imprisoned women and girls for violating strict dress codes.

Hundreds of executions in Iran

The authorities in Iran are also taking action against women who disobey the dress codes. Before the anniversary of nationwide protests – which broke out in September 2022 after the death of 22-year-old, Mahsa Jina Amini – the authorities detained activists, artists and students among others. Family members of the protestors who were killed in 2022 were intimidated and imprisoned.

The number of executions in Iran also increased in 2023 according to HRW. Between January and November 2023, human rights activists documented more than 700 executions. Death sentences are also imposed in connection with protests.

Saudi Arabia continues to impose the death penalty – even for drug charges, HRW reports. Social media users are also increasingly becoming targeted for voicing opinions and issued with decade-long prison sentences or even sentenced to death. International criticism was voiced last year against the death sentence that was imposed on retired teacher, Mohammed al-Ghamdi. He received the sentence because he allegedly violated anti-terrorism laws by voicing his opinion online.

Additionally, HRW accuses Saudi border guards of brutally killing hundreds of migrants at the border with Yemen. In order to conceal the systematic violations of human rights in the country, the government has invested billions in sporting events.

In Tunisia, the NGO documented attacks on migrants and asylum seekers made by the authorities. People have also been expelled to remote areas along the Tunisian border between Libya and Algeria – where they, in part, had to endure not having access to water, food or medical care for weeks.

Dissidents detained in Belarus and Vietnam

Additionally, the human rights organisation reports that the governments in Belarus and Vietnam have continued to take action against critical voices this past year. In Belarus, human rights activists, members of the media, lawyers, oppositionists and trade unionists were persecuted. In November, at least 1,462 people were in prison because of politically-motivated accusations.

Anastasiia Kruope from HRW comments: “Over the past year, Belarusian authorities doubled down to create an information vacuum around raging repressions by cutting political prisoners off from the outside world and bullying their lawyers and families into silence”.

In Vietnam, there are currently more than 160 people in prison because they exercised basic rights. In the first ten months of this past year, at least 28 activists were given long-term prison sentences.

And also in India, activists, members of the media, opposition politicians and other critics of the government have been arrested.

Additionally, Human Rights Watch also criticises that India is increasingly relying on a digital infrastructure for state services. Due to frequent net blocks, the country often could not utilise these services. The poorest parts of the population suffer the most from this – neither food rations can be distributed nor can wages be paid.

In the report, HRW also sharply criticises of migration policy of the European Union. Through this policy, the federation of States contributed to deaths, torture and human rights violations. Among other things, the EU has expanded repressive, dissuasive measures and alliances with countries that disregard human rights. Many member states participated in illegal push-backs at external borders.

Governments must stand up for human rights

Despite all setbacks, there were also positive developments in 2023. HRW appreciated, for example, that the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Russian president, Vladimir Putin and his Children’s Rights Officers. The background for this is war crimes in connection with the forcible transfer of children from occupied territories in Ukraine to Russia.

The Supreme Court in Brazil confirmed the right of all indigenous people to their traditional land. According to HRW, this has also been an effective measure against deforestation in the Amazon region.

And in November, the International Court of Justice ordered the Syrian government to do everything in their power to prevent torture and other abuse. This effort is a decisive counterbalance for some countries to normalise the relationship to the Syrian government, although there are still human rights violations.

HRW Executive Director, Hassen explains: “Human rights crises around the world demonstrate the urgency of applying longstanding and mutually agreed principles of international human rights law everywhere. Principled diplomacy, by which governments center their human rights obligations in their relations with other countries, can influence oppressive conduct and have a meaningful impact for people whose rights are being violated.” (js)