Introductory remarks by Salil Shetty at the Annual Report 2015/16 Press Conference in London, 23 February 2016
Thank you for joining us to get our assessment of human rights in the world in 2015. The moment that describes the situation most clearly is the one that I can never forget from my time with Syrian refugee families. This is from when I was visiting the informal refugee settlements in the Bekaa valley on the Syrian border in Lebanon. I spoke to many refugees and what struck me the most was that not one woman, one man, one child, told me that they want to go to Europe. Every one of them wanted to go back home, to Syria. But they could not.
This in many ways epitomises the story of 2015. The brazen violation of the most basic of human rights.
Yes, human rights have been under severe attack in the last 12 months. From Venezuela to Egypt, from DRC to China. Even the countries which have traditionally championed human rights, stand compromised.
Those standing up for human rights – activists, journalists, lawyers – have been intimidated and even killed in at least 91 countries. Their organisations have faced harassment and many of them shut down.
But what in many ways is even more worrying in 2015 is that the system to protect human rights is itself under serious threat and needs protection. The system that has been carefully built over 70 years to protect human rights now needs to be protected from a wholesale attack.
Let me explain why we think this is the case at different levels.
At the global level, countries that have signed up to the Refugee Convention are shamelessly flouting it in the face of millions fleeing war and persecution. Many African countries have clubbed together, threatening to walk out of the International Criminal Court – the global institution that is the only hope for justice in situations of mass atrocities.
At the regional level, the European human rights regime is under threat, including by the UK’s attempts to weaken its role. As tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims take the dangerous journey on boats through the Andaman Sea to avoid violence and discrimination in Myanmar, governments in Asia do little to save lives.
At the national level, too many governments are undermining the independence of their judiciary and press, introducing new laws or abusing existing ones to curb dissent and crush civil society. Women, minorities, indigenous communities, lower castes, LGBTI people, migrants and refugees have all faced threats and violence. We documented at least 122 states torturing or ill-treating people, 88 countries had unfair trials and 113 restricted freedom of expression.
Protection from violent attacks by armed groups, important as it is, has become the excuse for far too many governments to take shortcuts on human rights.
Amnesty International has consistently documented and condemned human rights abuses by armed groups – Islamic State, Boko Haram, YPG, and others – but the actions of these groups cannot be used as a justification for any government to themselves violate international human rights or humanitarian law for short-term gain. Whether it’s the US using mass surveillance, or Russia using the Foreign Agent Law, or Turkey or Nigeria using their security forces on their own populations, or France searching houses in an arbitrary and discriminatory way under its increasingly questionable emergency powers, human rights of civilians cannot be sacrificed under some vague notions of combating “terrorism”.
Human rights are not a nice-to-have add-on in today’s world; they are a fundamental prerequisite for lasting peace, security and prosperity. Human rights are a necessity, not an accessory.
I want to make one more thing clear. This is not an abstract discussion about somebody else’s rights. This affects each one of us. It affects you and your rights. If the insidious and creeping attempts to dismantle the system to protect human rights has not already hit you, be sure that it could. It’s not just journalists or activists that will be affected, it could affect absolutely anybody. Don’t take your right to privacy, your right to free speech and your right to assembly for granted any more. Increasingly, it is all up for grabs.
The stakes for humankind have never been higher. The fact that we have the highest number of people uprooted from their homes since the Second World War – 60 million – and 20 million of them have been pushed out of their home countries – is a serious wake up call.
The UN Security Council and the so-called international community continues to watch helplessly as Syria faces a complete meltdown. But it’s not just Syria – Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Burundi, North Korea are all in a precarious condition. It is time for world leaders to stop playing politics with the lives of civilians – children, women and men. It is time to protect the human rights of ordinary people.
We are calling on national governments and institutions at the regional and global level to do everything in their power to put human rights first. This means urgently stopping the assault on human rights and the systems that protect them. This means a full stop to the unlawful killing of civilians. It means enforcing the Refugee Convention and the international protections that refugees are entitled to. It means finding safe, legal and dignified ways for refugees to access Europe and other destinations. It means fully funding urgent humanitarian needs so as to protect economic and social rights of people on the move.
It means resettling 1.2 million refugees without further delays. It means ending mass surveillance. It means respecting the rule of law.
Today, as we launch our Annual Report, more than 7 million members, activists and supporters across the world who are part of the Amnesty International movement are calling on every concerned individual and organisation across the world to join our fight against this unprecedented assault on human rights. If not us, who? If not now, when?