The United Nations marks International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, with the top rights stories of the year being the refugee surge from the Middle East towards Europe, the humanitarian crises resulting from conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the rise of the Islamic State in Iran and the Levant (ISIL).
While he said it's been a challenging year for human rights, Iain Levine, deputy executive director of Human Rights Watch, said things are actually better than they’ve been in decades.
“We know more than we’ve ever known — things that happened 40 years ago, great massacres, massive famines, massive loss of lives in lots of different ways — and nobody knew. It’s almost impossible for major violations to be hidden today,” he said.
Levine also pointed to the U.N's willingness to provide an international response to impending crises such as Burundi, even if that response has been “slow” and “imperfect.” Additionally, the solidarity “the global human rights movement” as having made a difference, he said.
“We see that every day – people claiming their rights around the world and often taking tremendous risks to do so,” he said.
Perhaps in no other area is that as apparent at the refugee crisis, where nearly 1 million people have undertaken dangerous journeys to reach Europe, where many hope to seek asylum.
But even with this crisis, the public’s focus so often gets stuck on the top-text versus the subtext of a given crisis, often failing to see the real issue.
“The reality is that refugees are fleeing terrorism in their own countries, they’re not creating it … and we’re seeing a response that more that somehow suggests that the refugees are terrorists,” said Levine.
“And when asked, most people would assume that ISIS/ISIL is responsible for the majority of the abuses or deaths in Syria but in fact [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad is guilty of far more civilian deaths than ISIL is.”
It’s often very hard to get traction or political progress on an issue when we can’t get media attention … to generate political pressure on abusive governments.
Deputy Executive Eirector, Human Rights Watch
Still Levine stressed: “We have witnessed great progress in the protection of human rights even as we acknowledge the very eventful happenings of this year.”
Perhaps not in the United States, though.
The country was excoriated before the U.N. on its rights record, seen a steady stream of allegations of excessive use of force by police against mostly unarmed black men and is dealing with fallout from revelations of its torture program.
"The fact that there has been no accountability ... the fact that [President Barack] Obama never prosecuted anyone for the Bush-era abuses, even though the convention on torture obliges the US to hold people to account, unfortunately means future presidents can feel that they can go back to those tactics.
Levine notes that both Trump and his fellow Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson have said they would approve of the use of waterboarding.
2015: ‘OK for awareness’
One area of improvement in the U.S., said Sarah Jakiel, chief programs officer with Polaris, an anti-slavery NGO, is the rise in awareness of slavery and human trafficking.
“I would say 2015 was been an OK year in the fight against human trafficking — but it was a great year for awareness, “ said Jakiel.
“I think we really pushed over some assumptions, I think we filled in some gaps in people’s knowledge and I think exposure to the broader public of what types of issues qualify as human trafficking,” she added.
But she said, not enough was done to “meet the scale and scope of the crime.”
“I don’t think that we’ve done enough across the globe nor have we made sufficient progress in the U.S. — that said, I think that we are building a safety net for victims across the world.”
She points to the move to launch a human trafficking helpline in the UK in 2016 as well as a bi-national one between the U.S. and Mexico. Polaris already runs such a hotline in the U.S.
One of the more surprising stories of the year was the revelation that Thailand’s fishing industry relies heavily on slave labor, which Jakiel said “was a shock to a lot of people” in terms of how the products of slavery and trafficking enter our supply chains.
It was one of the stories that for a brief moment caught the public’s attention before ISIL and refugees dominated the headlines again.
“Do I ever wish that there was even five percent as much attention given to a human rights issue as much as [ISIL and the refugee crisis]? Totally,” said HRW’s Levine.
Take, for instance, the rights of those with disabilities.
“There are an estimated 600,000,000 people in the world living with some kind of disability, and they frequently suffer from appalling discrimination, abuse and exploitation,” said Levine.
“If I could mobilize even ONE percent as much focus or interest on the rights of those people as we see in response to Donald Trump’s rantings about Muslims — not to say it’s not important to respond to … around those stories to care about people with disabilities, political prisoners in Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan, women in Saudi Arabia,” he trailed off.
“It’s often very hard to get traction or political progress on an issue when we can’t get media attention … to generate political pressure on abusive governments.”