Autocracies are adopting defensive positions in the face of the growing response of the people who suffer them, something that democracies must take advantage of by showing greater unity and leadership, also against challenges such as pandemics, climate change or technological challenges. This is the opinion of the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kenneth Roth, who in an interview with EFE analyzes the current human rights situation, coinciding with the publication of the annual report of the NGO he has led for almost three decades.
In its annual report “Latin America: alarming reversal of basic freedoms,” HRW concluded that in 2021, Nicaragua experienced a general election without guarantees, with dozens of opposition leaders in prison, and with thousands of citizens fleeing into exile.
Are there reasons to think that democracy can reach some of the current dictatorships?
Certain currents note that autocracies are on the rise, but looking at the past year we see that it is a simplistic view and that autocracies are on the defensive. In many countries the population took to the streets in favor of democracy, even at the risk of being arrested or shot at. We have also seen broad coalitions from the right and the left unite in the common interest of ousting the tyrant, making it difficult for autocrats to hold elections to suit themselves.
Has the pandemic been used to reduce democracy?
Many leaders have used it as an excuse to silence dissent: we have seen it in dictatorial states like Egypt, but also in democracies whose leaders have autocratic tendencies, such as India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attacked doctors, whose role in responding to the pandemic was key.
Is Venezuela one of those countries where elections, even if controlled, can succeed in ending an autocracy?
It was seen in the recent state elections, where a broad coalition was able to defeat Hugo Chavez’s former son-in-law. It shows a tendency to unite politicians whose priority is to preserve democracy and confront autocrats. It was a local election but could potentially happen in national elections. Similar alliances defeated the populist Czech President Andrej Babis and in Israel put an end to the long tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
What is your diagnosis of the state of human rights in Latin America?
It is abhorrent what happened in Cuba in 2021, where the demonstrations, despite being harshly repressed by the Government, showed the position of the Cuban people. In Nicaragua, where there were similar protests two years ago, a “zombie” election was held in which seven opposition candidates were arrested, showing that Daniel Ortega has realized that he does not have popular support. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has undermined democracy, attacking the balance of power mechanisms, particularly those of the anti-corruption struggle. For this year the big challenge will be in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro, with strong autocratic tendencies, is already adopting Donald Trump’s strategy of sowing doubts about possible electoral fraud.
In 2021, international pressure on China increased, with actions such as the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games. Can this have results?
China is committing crimes against humanity in its Xinjiang region, where one million Uyghurs have been forcibly detained to renounce their religion, language, and culture. The world is responding slowly to these crimes for fear of Chinese retaliatory power, but 44 countries signed a joint statement condemning the crimes in Xinjiang. This has been joined by the widespread boycott of the Olympic Games and the call for no imports of Xinjiang products due to the extensive use of forced labor in the region. The next step to be taken is for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to finally release the long-awaited report on Xinjiang atrocities.
Has Hong Kong ceased to be an oasis of freedom in China?
Xi Jinping believes that all the Chinese people support him, although he does not dare to hold an election to prove it. His problem is that in the only place with free speech, which was Hong Kong, the people said that the last thing they wanted was a dictatorship like the one in China, and they held massive demonstrations to that effect. Recently, in local elections, pro-Beijing candidates lost. In response, China dismantled the “one country, two systems” principle, destroyed freedoms in Hong Kong and turned it into just another Chinese city, because President Xi cannot tolerate people in the country speaking out against him.
And what has been Russia’s role, lately all over the front pages because of the crises in Ukraine and Kazakhstan?
The Russian Government is determined to fight any movement towards democracy in neighboring countries. It helped Alexander Lukaschenko to suppress popular revolts after what should probably have been his electoral defeat in Belarus. Recently it sent troops against a protest that started with calls for reform in Kazakhstan and there is probably a political faction struggle within the government behind it. To analyze the Ukrainian issue, we must understand that what Russia fears is not that NATO will enter that country, but that democracy will, something the Kremlin cannot tolerate.
In his first year in the US presidency, has Joe Biden been a true defender of human rights?
Obviously, he has been a noticeable improvement over Donald Trump. Unlike him, he does not embrace every autocrat in the world, but Biden has also been partly a disappointment. He has championed human rights in relatively “easy” places, such as Myanmar, but in others such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates he maintains the same policies of selling arms and supporting dictatorship. He also continues to ignore Israel’s repressive occupation of the Palestinian territories.