For more than a decade, human rights organizations have warned that a persistent deterioration of respect for human rights and the rule of law was underway. Where does 2022 fit in that descent? Was it yet another disastrous year for human rights? Has the breakdown of international norms reached a new nadir? And if so, what must the global community do about it?
In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, unleashing military destruction on a people and country at peace. Within months, civilian infrastructure had been destroyed, thousands killed and many more injured. Russia’s action accelerated a global energy crisis and helped weaken food production and distribution systems, leading to a global food crisis that continues to affect poorer nations and racialized people disproportionately.
Less than a week after the invasion, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC announced an investigation into war crimes committed in Ukraine. On 2 March, an overwhelming majority of countries at the UN General Assembly voted to condemn Russia’s invasion as an act of aggression. Meanwhile, European countries that long had rejected refugees opened their borders to Ukrainians seeking safety.
Throughout 2022 international calls for justice and support to war crimes investigations were strident. Possibly riding this wave, at the General Assembly, UN member states adopted a resolution to counter the power of the veto at the UN Security Council, a major source of its systemic weakness. Could Russia’s aggression against Ukraine also act as a broader wake-up call? Could it work to unite the world around human rights and universal values?
More conflicts, more deadly
The war in Ethiopia raged on in 2022, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives by some estimates, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in recent memory. But much of this carnage was hidden from view, meted out in a largely invisible campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans in Western Tigray.
2022 was the deadliest year in a decade for Palestinians in the West Bank, with at least 151 people, including dozens of children, killed by Israeli forces, most in the context of more frequent military raids and arrest operations. The military of Myanmar systematically punished the country’s Karen and Karenni civilians with the result that hundreds died and at least 150,000 were displaced. The people of Haiti, Mali, Venezuela, Yemen, and many other places too, were plagued by armed conflicts or systemic violence and associated human rights violations.
More climate catastrophes, more oil, less remedy
The devastating costs of the unchecked climate crisis were made abundantly clear in 2022. Floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires led to deaths, loss of housing and livelihoods, and increasing food insecurity.
Yet, in the face of these disasters, when the world’s leaders met for COP27 in Egypt, they failed to take the measures needed to keep the rise in global temperature below the 1.5°C threshold. States further refused to tackle global warming’s number one driver – the production and use of fossil fuels.
Global cooperation to stem this temperature rise was ineffective and negotiations failed to secure vital commitments to the phasing out of all fossil fuels. There was a breakthrough on funding for countries hit hardest by climate disasters: the establishment of the Loss and Damage fund is a ray of hope for people living on the frontlines of the climate crisis. However, the fund is far from operational and the annual USD 100 billion in climate-related funding, which wealthy countries have been promising to developing nations since 2009, has yet to be delivered.
Meanwhile, the six largest Western oil companies achieved record breaking pre-tax profits of over USD 200 billion in 2022. This extraordinary accumulation is not just a product of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine driving up energy prices. It reflects the fossil fuel industry’s knowing disregard for the damage their business has on the world’s climate and the environment, and their recalcitrant approach to compensation and remedial action for that damage.
The Covid-19 pandemic, and now the Ukraine war, have exacerbated double standards. Wealthy nations hoarded Covid-19 vaccines and weakened multilateral redistribution systems, contributing to deepening inequality. In 2022, there was little evidence of that being reversed. Wealthy countries failed to take action to relieve developing countries of their crushing debt burdens.
Russian aggression against Ukraine is also a war against universal values, and the multilateral systems designed to uphold them. To win that war, the Western world cannot effectively condone similar aggression in other
countries just because their interests are at stake. In fact, the double standards of the West were showcased by their deafening silences on human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and their inconsistent responses to the grave human rights impact of other conflicts, some amounting to crimes against humanity, and to the protection of refugees fleeing them.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, 2022 saw the system of apartheid solidified. Successive Israeli governments rolled out measures forcing more Palestinians from their homes, expanding illegal settlements, and legalizing existing settlements and outposts across the occupied West Bank. Rather than demand an end to that system of oppression, many Western governments chose instead to attack those denouncing Israel’s apartheid system. The EU’s open doors for Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian aggression remained closed to those fleeing war and repression in Afghanistan and Syria. Between September 2021 and May 2022, the USA expelled more than 25,000 Haitians and detained and subjected many to torture and other ill-treatment rooted in anti-Black racism.
Such examples confirmed to the rest of the world that the West’s support for human rights is selective and self-interested, and undermined global support for Ukraine. Those double standards do not benefit Western power alone. China continued to evade international condemnation by the UNGA and the UNHRC despite massive human rights violations, amounting to crimes against humanity, against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
Protecting rights nationally
Any argument that the world’s response to Russian aggression marks out a new era for a values-based international system and the rule of law is also weakened by the palpable deterioration in states’ protection of human rights at home.
Indigenous peoples’ rights were violated when states failed to protect them from corporate or state expropriation of their lands, in Brazil, Canada, Sweden, Tanzania, Viet Nam and elsewhere.
The USA’s Supreme Court overturned a long-standing constitutional guarantee of abortion access, thereby threatening the exercise of critical rights, including the right to life, security and non-discrimination for millions of women, girls, and other people. In Afghanistan, the Taliban imposed draconian restrictions, denying women and girls the rights to education, work, and autonomy, while publicly proclaiming women’s subservience to men. In Iran, the “morality police” murdered Mahsa Amini for wearing her headscarf the wrong way, sparking nationwide protests in which more women and girls were injured, detained or killed.
The erosion of our freedoms to protest and to express ourselves became, in 2022, a fully-fledged landslide. Russian media houses were taken to court and shut down for simply mentioning the war in Ukraine. Journalists were imprisoned in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Russia and dozens of other countries across the world. Technology was weaponized against many, to silence, to prevent public assembly or to disinform. Peaceful protesters faced an ever-growing armoury of weapons; from batons, tear gas and rubber pellets, to live ammunition, as we saw in Iran, Peru and Sri Lanka. Corrosive legislation in the UK increased police power as it diminished the right to peaceful protest.
We’ve witnessed iconic acts of defiance, including Afghan women taking to the streets to protest Taliban rule and Iranian women posting videos of themselves cutting their hair in protest against the country’s abusive and forced veiling laws. We can take some comfort in knowing that in the face of such repression thousands of people still came together to write letters, sign petitions, and take to the streets. It should be a reminder to those in power that our rights to demand change, and to come together freely and collectively, cannot be taken away.
2022 may have been a turning point for the international order. It certainly saw a renewal of the Atlantic alliance, with a level of cooperation between the US and other Western powers that a year ago, in the wake of the chaotic 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal, would have been hard to imagine.
But there was no turning point on the human rights front. Rather, the descent continued unchecked. Russia’s aggression served to further destabilize an international multilateral system already weakened by decades of powerful states flouting international law with impunity. The war diverted resources and attention away from the climate crisis, other long-standing conflicts and human suffering the world over.
The West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also underscored its own double standards, and its inconsequential reactions to so many other violations of the UN Charter. This in turn further fuelled instability and impunity.
If Russia’s war of aggression demonstrates anything for the world’s future, it is the importance of an effective and consistently applied rules-based international order. Those leading the coalition in support of Ukraine must
step up their efforts, and partner with others, for a renewed commitment to an international system that benefits the majority of the world’s population.
2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document created from the ashes of a world war. Let us not wait for the world to burn yet again to truly live by the freedoms and principles that came at the cost of millions of lives. 2023 must be a turning point for upholding human rights: anything less from the world’s leaders is a betrayal which could take the world to the abyss.
Secretary General Amnesty International