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Rights report warns Trump-style populism threatens democracy

President-elect Donald Trump / Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

President-elect Donald Trump / Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

In an annual report that typically focuses on abuses in less-developed countries, Human Rights Watch on Thursday issued a sharp warning that the rise of populist politicians in the United States and Europe threatened modern rights movements and potentially even Western democracy.

The 704-page report, covering key global trends in human rights as well as local conditions in 90 countries, singled out the presidential campaign of Donald Trump as “a vivid illustration of (the) politics of intolerance.”

It said Trump’s success reflected a dangerous “infatuation with strongman rule” also evident in Russia, China, Venezuela and the Philippines, with some leaders “emboldened in their repressive path by the rise of Western populism, and by the West’s muted response.” Authoritarianism was also on the rise in Turkey and Egypt, it said.

HRW said Syria represented “perhaps the deadliest threat to rights standards” because of the indiscriminate attacks on civilians by Syrian and allied Russian forces, as exemplified by the devastation of Aleppo.

It said that while the West focused narrowly on the fight against the Islamic State group, the Assad government’s forces had claimed “vastly” more lives with frequent bombing of civilian areas.

And it warned that even a battlefield victory over IS risked being hollow, because “these atrocities could easily breed new extremist groups, just as similar atrocities helped to fuel the emergence of ISIS from the ashes of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

But the focus of the report, in an introductory essay by executive director Kenneth Roth, was the danger of rising populism in the West, a trend it said was both embodied, and encouraged, by Trump.

Amid growing economic inequality, periodic extremist attacks and increasing ethnic and racial diversity in the West, politicians like Trump were exploiting a “cauldron of discontent” to scapegoat refugees, immigrants and minorities, with truth “a frequent casualty.”

Trump had “breached basic principles of dignity and equality” in his attacks, it said, yet his policy proposals had “a practical emptiness.”

– Antidote: popular activism –
Thus, by suggesting a ban on Muslims, the report said, “he demonized the very Muslim communities whose cooperation is important for identifying tomorrow’s plots.” His threatened mass deportation of migrants would uproot many who contribute productively to the economy, while doing “nothing to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs.”

The threat to democracy, it said, can arise when growing numbers of people, egged on by populist leaders, come to see their rights not as protecting them from the state but as protecting “these ‘other’ people, not themselves, and thus as dispensable.”

The report added: “We forget at our peril the demagogues of yesteryear — the fascists, communists and their ilk who claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual” even while attacking “the checks and balances that constrain governmental power.”

The organization said that too few Western political leaders had offered vigorous defenses in the face of the populist surge, though it credited Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Obama with doing so at times.

Other leaders, it said, had “buried their heads in the sand” or even sought ways to profit from populist passions.

The report faulted President Francois Hollande of France, who it said had “borrowed from the National Front playbook to try to make depriving French-born dual citizens of their nationality a central part of his counterterrorism policy.”

And British Prime Minister Theresa May had denounced “activist left-wing human rights lawyers” for taking legal action against British troops accused of abusing locals in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The best antidote to ascendant populism, the report said, is public activism.

“Populists thrive in a vacuum of opposition. A strong popular reaction, using every means available… is the best defense.”


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