In its yearly report, Human Rights Watch warns that the rise of populist leaders "poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections"—particularly naming Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. On releasing its "World Report 2017," the organization stated: "Donald Trump's election as US president after a campaign fomenting hatred and intolerance, and the rising influence of political parties in Europe that reject universal rights, have put the postwar human rights system at risk." It added that "strongman leaders in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and China have substituted their own authority, rather than accountable government and the rule of law, as a guarantor of prosperity and security. These converging trends, bolstered by propaganda operations that denigrate legal standards and disdain factual analysis, directly challenge the laws and institutions that promote dignity, tolerance, and equality."
In his introductory essay, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth writes: "The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights. Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism. They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny."
Roth notes that Trump's presidential campaign "floated proposals that would harm millions of people, including plans to engage in massive deportations of immigrants, to curtail women's rights and media freedoms, and to use torture. Unless Trump repudiates these proposals, his administration risks committing massive rights violations in the US and shirking a longstanding, bipartisan belief, however imperfectly applied, in a rights-based foreign policy agenda."
In Russia, HRW finds that Vladimir Putin "responded to popular discontent in 2011 with a repressive agenda, including draconian restrictions on free speech and assembly, unprecedented sanctions for online dissent, and laws severely restricting independent groups." China's Xi Jinping has meanwhile "embarked on the most intense crackdown on dissent since the Tiananmen era."
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, "has honed a war-crime strategy of targeting civilians in opposition areas, flouting the most fundamental requirements of the laws of war." More than 5 million Syrians fleeing the conflict have faced daunting obstacles in finding safety. Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon are hosting millions of Syrian refugees but have largely closed their borders to new arrivals. European Union leaders have failed to share responsibility fairly for asylum seekers or to create safe routes for refugees. Despite years of US leadership on refugee resettlement, the US resettled only 12,000 Syrian refugees last year, and Trump has threatened to end the program
"We forget at our peril the demagogues of the past: the fascists, communists, and their ilk who claimed privileged insight into the majority's interest," Roth said. "When populists treat rights as obstacles to their vision of the majority will, it is only a matter of time before they turn on those who disagree with their agenda." (HRW, Jan. 12)