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Watchdog Warns 'Human Rights In Global Jeopardy'

Afghan migrants who have no permission to cross the border between Greece and Macedonia stay behind a fence near Gevgelija on February 23.
Afghan migrants who have no permission to cross the border between Greece and Macedonia stay behind a fence near Gevgelija on February 23.

Amnesty International has warned that human rights and the laws and institutions meant to protect them are under threat around the world from an "insidious and creeping trend" among governments that are deliberately attacking or neglecting them.

In its latest annual report, The State Of The World's Human Rights, the London-based human rights group calls on governments to give full political backing and funding to systems whose task is to uphold international law and protect individuals' rights.

The group says the UN's human rights bodies, the International Criminal Court, and regional institutions such as the Council of Europe and the Inter American Human Rights system are being undermined by governments attempting to elude control of their domestic rights records.

"Your rights are in jeopardy; they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world," Salil Shetty, the group's secretary-general, told reporters ahead of the document's release.

The authors say the trend is a result of many governments' efforts to respond to evolving security threats, including war and terrorism.

"The misguided reaction of many governments to national security threats has been the crushing of civil society, the right to privacy, and the right to free speech; and outright attempts to make human rights dirty words, packaging them in opposition to national security, law and order, and 'national values,'" Shetty said. "Governments have even broken their own laws in this way."

The report warns that "respect for human rights regressed" even in parts of the world with established and institutionalized traditions of safeguarding human rights, like the European Union, in the face of crises like the unprecedented influx of refugees prompted by the conflict in Syria, or terrorist attacks in France.

"The European Union, the world's richest political bloc with a total population of over 500 million people, singularly failed to come up with a coherent, humane, and rights-respecting response to this challenge," the report says.

A Turbulent Year

Amnesty International says 2015 was a turbulent, difficult year for human rights across Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In Russia, freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly continued to be severely curtailed, and attempts to silence civil society were made with the aid of the repressive use of vague national security and anti-extremism laws.

The report says Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) face further harassment and reprisals under a 2012 law that stipulates that NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in political activities must register with the government as "foreign agents."

"We have seen more crackdowns on the freedom of expression, on the freedom of peaceful assembly, on the freedom of association," Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty's deputy program director for Europe and Central Asia, told RFE/RL. "NGOs have been under pressure for a number of years and [the pressure] has massively increased over the last year. We see them being closed, heavily fined, and it's probably not long before we see the first criminal cases against NGO leaders."

The report also points to new Russian legislation that criminalizes the repeated violation of rules on public assembly, which are already restrictive.

"So repeated violations have been made a criminal offense, and now we have seen four people prosecuted and one has already a three-year [prison] sentence," Krivosheev said.

'Worrying Situation' In Ukraine

The rights group also points to a negative effect that the continued Moscow-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine has had on the human rights situation in both countries.

"In Russia, we have seen criminal prosecution of people who have publicly criticized Russia's policies towards Ukraine, and this has been particularly evident on the Internet," Krivosheev said.

The report cites the situation in Ukraine as worrying, adding that it has become increasingly dangerous for journalists to express pro-Russian views.

"One journalist, Oles Buzina, was killed, and he was known for his pro-Russian views," Krivosheev said.

Another journalist, Ruslan Kotsaba, who spoke out publicly against the war in the east and against mobilization, was arrested by Ukrainian authorities and is now awaiting trial for state treason.

"He is the first person in Ukraine in five years whom we recognize as a prisoner of conscience," Krivosheev said.

Central Asia 'Replicates' Russia

Among Central Asia's ex-Soviet republics, the report warns that human rights remain under attack and the region's negative trend "is going further," with some of the countries attempting to replicate methods used by Russia.

"For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, the parliament tried to adopt a law similar to Russia's so-called 'foreign agents' law to oblige NGOs that receive foreign funding to use this toxic label," Krivosheev said. "It was initially approved in the parliament, then it was recalled for consultation; but there is every change that it will come back and will become a law."

The human rights situation also regressed in Kazakhstan, where authorities established a state agency to supervise the distribution of grants to NGOs, including possible foreign funding, according to Amnesty International.

Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have remained as repressive as before, says the report, with torture and other human rights violations continuing.

Growing Insecurity

Meanwhile, Afghanistan has seen growing insecurity, the report says, with insurgency and criminality worsening throughout the country.

Champa Patel, Amnesty International's interim director for South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Pacific regional offices, told RFE/RL that Afghanistan also grapples with the huge problem posed by millions of internally displaced persons, as well as a continued lack of accountability for civilian casualties.

"I think it's often forgotten that Afghanistan has the second-highest refugee population in the world [after Syria], and that continues to be an area of concern for us," Patel said.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is criticized in the report for its resumption of executions following a Pakistani Taliban-led attack on a school Peshawar in December 2014 in which 141 people, mostly children, were killed.

"Pakistan is the top executioner after only China and Iran," Patel said. "More than 300 people were put to death last year, so it's an area that we feel is of great concern and that we want to see the Pakistani authorities tackle."

Other issues facing Pakistan include the use of torture to extract confessions, the lack of fair-trial safeguards, and the use of military courts with little transparency, according to the report.

Amnesty International says that in Iran, authorities severely curtailed human rights, including freedom of expression, association, and assembly, jailing journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and others who voiced dissent, on vague and overly broad charges.

"Authorities carry out cruel punishment, including blinding, amputation, and flogging, and courts have imposed death sentences for a range of crimes including on at least four juvenile offenders. So it's an area that remains of great concern for us," Patel said.

"We continue to have concerns about torture and other ill treatment in Iran."