Trump, China and COVID-19: New report reveals the worst human rights offenders in 2020

2020 saw a rollback in human rights around much of the world, a new report claims, with three primary culprits: Donald Trump, the Chinese government and COVID-19. 

But they weren't alone, with abuses documented across the globe in Human Rights Watch's World Report 2021, released on Thursday (NZ time). 

The report opens with an evisceration of outgoing US President Donald Trump, calling him a "disaster for human rights", citing examples such as separating migrant children from families, cosying up to brutal dictators, selling weapons to regimes known to commit war crimes, slashing funding for reproductive health, withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement and empowering white supremacists, among other things. 

"This destructive combination eroded the credibility of the US government even when it did speak out against abuses," Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth wrote

"Condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Israel." 

Roth called on Trump's successor Joe Biden to "press for ratification of core human rights treaties that the US government has long neglected", saying a "simple return to the ways of Obama - a so-called third Obama term - will not be enough".

"For inspiration, Biden could look to Jimmy Carter, who first introduced human rights as an element of US foreign policy. At the time, that was seen as a radical move, but it has endured through the decades."

The storming of the US Capitol on January 6 - which saw hundreds of mostly white people break into the heart of the US Government with little resistance from law enforcement, "laid bare major human rights failings in the United States". Previous protests by left-wing and majority Black groups were largely peaceful, yet met with force from police.

Donald Trump - a "disaster" for human rights.
Donald Trump - a "disaster" for human rights. Photo credit: Getty

Roth then turned his attention to China.

"Repression in China has deepened severely in recent years under Xi Jinping, with the detention of more than one million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang to pressure them to abandon Islam and their culture, the crushing of Hong Kong's freedoms, ongoing repression in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, and the crackdown on independent voices throughout the country. 

"This has been the darkest period for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square democracy movement."

He praised nations for standing up to the dictatorship, noting four years ago it received the most votes of any country seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council - and this year it came second-to-last, ahead of only Saudi Arabia, another serial human rights offender.

Coronavirus featured heavily in the report.

"Many governments did too little to help," HRW staff wrote in an accompanying editorial, noting the "combined wealth of global billionaires reached new heights" despite the economic shock the pandemic caused - up US$1.5 trillion, "an amount that could lift everyone in extreme poverty - all 680 million people - above" the poverty line.

While some countries focused their financial relief on the poor, others were "left high and dry" - notably millions of people in the world's richest nation, the US. 

Some countries used the pandemic to carry out other abuses, HRW said. In Cambodia, journalists, activists and opposition members were rounded up. 

"Prime Minister Hun Sen took advantage of the global pandemic to step up his repression of critics and activists and adopt more draconian laws," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director - a common criticism of many Asian and Middle Eastern governments, including Iran. "Donors, foreign governments, and the United Nations offered little more than pro forma criticisms, while watching the country slip deeper into dictatorship."

Even governments with democratic institutions hundreds of years old struggled to respond to the pandemic without putting human rights at risk. The UK "used rush tactics to pass pandemic-related emergency legislation without proper scrutiny", HRW said, and "sought to restrict media access to news conferences in the Prime Minister's office". The pandemic has also hit Black and other minority groups much harder than others. 

Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister. Photo credit: Reuters

Turkey's government used the pandemic to "deepen autocratic rule by silencing critics and rapidly passing restrictive new laws to limit dissent", HRW said. Even when it decided to free prisoners to avoid overcrowding - a transmission risk - it "deliberately excluded thousands of arbitrarily jailed prisoners from eligibility".

"The COVID-19 pandemic became a pretext for the Erdogan government to double down on autocratic rule and stamp out criticism and opposition at the expense of uniting the country during a public health crisis," said Hugh Williamson, HRW Europe and Central Asia director. 

New Zealand's lockdown was for a time the strictest on the planet, according to experts, and the early part was later ruled technically illegal, but justified. 

But despite numerous marches against so-called illegal COVID-19 measures and concerns about the treatment of prisoners, Aotearoa barely rates a mention in the report. New Zealand is mentioned just three times - twice in a section about Australia's treatment of refugees, and once in regard to our suspension of an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, after China proposed legislation that could see people extradited to Hong Kong end up being transferred to the mainland. 

Australia's alleged abuses in 2020 were bad enough to get their own section in the report. HRW criticised the nation's treatment of asylum seekers, in particular a Kurd who was  "forcibly removed" from a COVID-19 quarantine hotel after he complained about the conditions "and placed him in immigration detention". 

Australia's treatment of its indigenous population was also heavily examined, as was censorship of climate scientists and the June police raid on journalists investigating possible war crimes carried out by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. 

All up about 100 countries made the cut in the 761-page report, which can be read on the HRW website.