Pushback against authoritarian populism is working, human rights group says

President Trump's policies come under fire in the new annual report by Human Rights Watch.

Story highlights

  • Human Rights Watch: The rise of authoritarian populism seems "less inevitable than it did a year ago"
  • Annual report is critical of China, Russia, US

(CNN)Strong pushback against authoritarian populism in several countries, including France and Canada, has weakened its advance and is a cause for hope around the world, according to Human Rights Watch in its annual global report.

The continued rise of authoritarian populism seems "less inevitable than it did a year ago," the organization now says.
In releasing the report on Thursday, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urged people across the world to challenge populist leadership rather than surrender in the face of it. Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit human rights organization, sees authoritarian populists as demagogues who exploit voters' xenophobia to oppose immigration and erode human rights.
    "A year ago, it really seemed like the rise of authoritarian populists was going to be unstoppable," Roth said, alluding in part to the November 2016 election victory of President Donald Trump. Last year's report said Trump's win had contributed to putting "the postwar human rights system at risk."
    "A group of leaders had taken power, attracting support by scapegoating and demonizing minorities, by attacking human rights principles and by undermining democratic institutions," Roth said Thursday.
    But Roth now believes the outlook is less gloomy.
    "The big news over the last year has been the resistance," he said. "And where that resistance has been strong...it has been possible to limit the gains of the authoritarian populists."
    Roth warned, however, that the threat posed by authoritarian populism is still present.
    "When through indifference or acquiescence or simply other priorities, there has not been this resistance, the populists have flourished," he said.

    Worrisome trends?

    The report heavily criticizes Trump's "populist" agenda during his first year in office.
    "Across a range of issues in 2017, the US moved backward on human rights at home and abroad," the report says, citing bills and proposals that target refugees, people with disabilities, women and the LGBT community.
    The White House did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.
    HRW also has harsh words for several other Western nations. Preoccupied by domestic struggles against populism, countries such as Germany have become "more inwardly oriented" and have often failed to challenge real and pressing threats to human rights around the world, the report claims.
    "The retreat of many governments that might have championed human rights has left an open field for murderous leaders and their enablers," Roth wrote in the report's introduction.
    The report singles out China and Russia for seeking "to take advantage of this vacuum" by "aggressively (asserting) an anti-rights agenda." Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Burma also come under fire, and the report criticizes some European nations for failing to prevent rights abuses closer to home.
    The EU's apparent bid to "keep migrants away at all costs" has led to a "strategy of containment in cooperation with Libyan authorities, despite overwhelming evidence of pervasive and routine brutality against asylum seekers and other migrants," the report says.
    A Libyan coast guardsman stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 people attempting to reach Europe in June 2017.
    Particularly restrictive asylum policies in Hungary and Poland are criticized in the report, along with well publicized and internationally condemned attacks on judicial independence in Poland and on civil society organizations in Hungary.
    And HRW accuses the UK of being "missing in action" in the battle against human rights abuses.
    Roth told reporters that if the country -- which does not have its own written constitution -- pulls out of the European Convention on Human Rights following its exit from the EU, "it's going to leave Brits... in a much weaker position to see their rights respected."

    Report finds cause for hope

    Emmanuel Macron's resounding defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in last year's French presidential election is just one of many signs of hope to emerge from 2017, according to the report, which argues that Macron won by embracing democratic principles rather than emulating his populist opponent.
    And while HRW insists there are "longstanding human rights challenges" in Canada related to the rights of indigenous peoples and the use of immigration detention, it also presented the country as an example of the successful rejection of populist rhetoric and policy.
    More broadly, the report welcomes the actions taken by several smaller nations against human rights abuses.
    "The willingness of these alternative voices to take center stage was particularly important in the past year as major powers largely walked off the stage or even tried to upend it," Roth wrote.
    Signs of resistance to President Trump and other populist figures include the Women's March last January.
    The report also highlights Iceland's efforts to end the "slaughter" sanctioned by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the role of nations such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg in leading a successful call for an international investigation in Yemen.
    HRW also welcomes signs of grassroots action against populism and rights abuses. Large-scale protests against Trump as well as Zimbabwe's recently ousted President Robert Mugabe, Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro and governments in Hungary and Poland suggest that "many people will not sit quietly" while their rights and freedoms are attacked, the report argues.
    "The past year shows that rights can be protected from populist assaults," concluded Roth in the introduction. "The challenge now is to strengthen that defense and reverse the populist surge."