HRW hails resistance to Trump-style populism, raps Myanmar, Philippines

20 January 2018
HRW hails resistance to Trump-style populism, raps Myanmar, Philippines
There is hope about a kickback against the negative and destructive populism that US President Donald Trump has encouraged. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE

The policies of US President Donald Trump and his embrace of populist strongmen have dealt a blow to rights campaigns around the world but resistance is building, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
In its annual report, the group denounced rights abuses in unstable states like Syria and Myanmar as well as authoritarian trends in powers like Turkey and China -- while also weighing in on the first year of Trump's term.
Under Trump, the United States cosied up to leaders like the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte and encouraged Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's bloody intervention in Yemen, HRW said.
But in an interview with AFP, the group's executive director Kenneth Roth hailed the growing civic and political resistance to populists.
- Unlikely champions –
"The big theme this year is really how much the world has changed," Roth said. "Because a year ago, just as Donald Trump was entering the White House, it was a moment of despair.
"What has been encouraging over the last year is how much resistance we've seen in many countries to this rise of populism."
He cited signs that Duterte was now encountering domestic resistance to his brutal anti-drugs crackdown and that Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro has had to contend with sustained street protests.
He also praised the role of Western nations in pressing nations to end rights abuses, such as Iceland's efforts at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which led Duterte to rein in his "murderous police".
And when Russia vetoed bids to hold Syria to account, "it was the superpower of Lichtenstein that led an effort at the UN General Assembly to appoint a special prosecutor," Roth said drily.
- French 'turning point'-
Roth also noted efforts by US judges and activists to fight back -- not always successfully -- against measures such as Trump's moves to curb immigration from Muslim-majority nations.
He also hailed Emmanuel Macron's victory over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in France's presidential election.
"The reason we chose Paris to issue this report is really because of Macron's electoral campaign," Roth said at a press conference Thursday.
"We saw it as a real turning point in the reaction to the rise of populism," he said, referring to Macron's criticism of the rights records of Russia and Turkey during meetings with those countries' leaders.
But Roth noted that Macron had not pressed China's leaders on human rights during his visit there this month and also expressed concern over France's tough new anti-terror laws.
"We are worried that the greater ease with which the police can conduct searches, restrain some people's movements, close off certain facilities, is going to lend itself to discriminatory abuse, particularly against the Muslim population," he said.
- Saudi prince: reformer or warmonger?
Myanmar saw its cautious year-old transition towards elected civilian rule morph into a "massive human rights and humanitarian crisis" for its Muslim minority, the HRW report said.
According to the group 650,000 members of the Rohingya minority fled "mass killings, sexual violence, arson and other abuses amounting to crimes against humanity by the security forces."
Most criticism -- and some new US sanctions -- has been aimed at Myanmar's generals, sparing the country's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Nobody believes that she led the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, but she has in essence defended it. She's refused to publicly criticise it," Roth told AFP.
In the Middle East, HRW said weapons supplied by the US and Britain had killed civilians in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of regional allies battling Shiite Huthi rebels backed by Iran.
"The war is also exacerbating the world's largest humanitarian catastrophe. Both sides are unlawfully impeding the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid," the report said.
Although the crown prince is seen as pushing a modernising drive such as allowing women to drive and arresting princes suspected of corruption, he has also pursued the blockade of Yemeni ports.
Roth said the bombings and blockades had left more than six million Yemenis facing starvation and a million with cholera.     
"So I take this view of the Saudi crown prince as being a reformer with a big grain of salt," he said.