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2015 a year of lost freedoms and human rights abuses, as fear and repression rise

A family of Afghan asylum seekers waits to enter the Moria registration center on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Zalmai/Human Rights Watch)

“Freedom, yea right,” screams Zac de la Roca of Rage Against the Machine at the end of the group’s 1991 song. For many, it’s as true today as it ever was. A pair of reports claim that freedoms and human rights diminished around the world in the past year.

According to Freedom House in its annual report, people saw diminished freedoms in 72 countries in 2015. And Human Rights Watch said that human rights are threatened by terror attacks fears and the influx of refugees in the West.

The two reports paint a dismal picture of 2015. The groups agree that the world’s reaction to Syrian and Iraqi refugees is becoming a major problem. From the rise of nationalist candidates in the U.S. and Europe to the confiscation of possessions in Denmark, nations are reacting severely to incoming asylum seekers

“Fear of terrorist attacks and mass refugee flows are driving many Western governments to roll back human rights protections,” said Ken Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, in a news release. “These backward steps threaten the rights of all without any demonstrated effectiveness in protecting ordinary people.”

(Freedom House)

(Freedom House)

Human Rights Watch’s 659-page report covers human rights in more than 90 countries. It shows how Russia and China are using tactics to prevent civil society from organizing. And Ethiopia and India, where governments are making nationalist appeals against foreign funding to prevent international human rights monitoring. Other countries are using laws to prevent the formation of independent groups, and the list goes on of restrictions to rights across the world.

Similarly, Freedom Works finds that political rights and civil liberties declined in 105 countries last year. Most of the declines were relatively small, but the group says the overall trend downward is “cause for concern.” For the most part, rights are falling in countries where authoritarian governments rule. Democracies tend to fare better, but the changes in Europe in response to the refugee crisis show no government is immune.

“In many countries with authoritarian governments, the drop in revenues from falling commodity prices led dictators to redouble political repression at home and lash out at perceived foreign enemies,” said Freedom House researcher Arch Puddington, in a statement. “Democratic countries came under strain from terrorist attacks and unprecedented numbers of refugees – problems emanating from regional conflicts such as the Syrian civil war.”

Despite the overall bleak outlook from both reports, there is plenty of good news too. Peaceful elections and transitions of power were experienced in Myanmar and Nigeria. Both examples show that democratic elections can allow citizens to replace ruling leaders. There is also praise for efforts to decriminalize drug use in many countries and the important development and climate change agreements finalized in late 2015. Mozambique decriminalized homosexuality; Ireland, Mexico and the U.S. granted same-sex marriage rights. Hissene Habre, the former leader of Chad, went to trial in Senegal for crimes against humanity committed during his dictatorship in the 1980s.

The list of improvements goes on. But it is the lingering effects of terror attacks and the ways that countries manage policies that restrict rights of citizens and foreigners that are concerning and widespread. Countries must balance their humanitarian and security obligations.

“Creating a safe and orderly way for refugees to make their way to Europe would reduce lives lost at sea while helping immigration officials to screen out security risks, increasing security for everyone,” said Roth.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]