2023: A year of global human rights regression amid political expediency

Human Rights Watch's 2024 report exposes a year of global human rights backsliding amidst political compromises.

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The year 2023 marked a significant downturn in global human rights, fueled by what Human Rights Watch (HRW) termed ‘transactional diplomacy.’ The world witnessed severe human rights crises, most notably in Gaza, as governments worldwide increasingly prioritized short-term political and security gains over principled human rights advocacy.

In Gaza, Israeli military operations led to a staggering toll on human life, with over 23,000 casualties in just three months. The International Court of Justice’s examination of South Africa’s allegations against Israel brought global attention to the severity of the situation. HRW’s executive director, Tirana Hassan, stressed that such crises are symptomatic of global leaders’ reluctance to uphold human rights universally.

2023 witnessed leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, faltering in their commitment to human rights. The U.S.’s financial support for Israel’s operations in Gaza and Biden’s reluctance to confront rights abusers crucial to his domestic agenda underscored a broader trend of transactional diplomacy. The European Union’s handling of the migrant crisis further exemplified this trend, where short-term solutions overshadowed long-term human rights considerations.

The United States’ role in global human rights issues has been a complex blend of support and criticism. Historically, the U.S. has engaged in regions like Yemen and Gaza, often sparking debates over the ethics and legality of its interventions. These actions reflect a pattern where strategic interests have sometimes overshadowed human rights concerns.

HRW’s World Report 2024 painted a grim picture of global human rights practices. The report highlighted varying responses to human rights abuses worldwide, illustrating a lack of consistent global strategy in addressing these issues.

Armed conflicts in Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and the Sahel region were prominent in 2023, with severe human rights implications. These conflicts often saw major powers playing influential roles, raising questions about the international community’s commitment to human rights in conflict zones.

The intensifying climate crisis and rising global inequality emerged as new frontiers in human rights. The disproportionate impact of climate change on low-income countries, despite wealthier nations’ larger contribution to global warming, highlighted an urgent need for a human-rights-centered approach to environmental policy.

Selective outrage in international politics, especially in responses to crises in Gaza and Sudan, weakened the global commitment to human rights. This selective approach eroded trust in international institutions tasked with upholding these rights.

Despite these challenges, grassroots movements and civil society organizations achieved significant victories in upholding human rights. Their efforts demonstrated the potential of bottom-up approaches in challenging political power and shaping a rights-respecting future.

2023 was a year of regression in global human rights, yet it also offered lessons for the future. Consistent and principled human rights policies are needed from global leaders and international organizations.

“The challenge—and the urgency—is to consistently uphold human rights in a principled manner, no matter the perpetrator or the victim,” concluded Hassan.

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