Global human rights are under siege in the Trump era

The good news: activists are fighting back.

A Muslim woman walks past a street artist's rendition of U.S. President Donald Trump on June 27, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. CREDIT: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A Muslim woman walks past a street artist's rendition of U.S. President Donald Trump on June 27, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. CREDIT: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An era of hate-filled rhetoric and global insecurity has endangered human rights around the world, spurring an extraordinary wave of social activism.

Those are the underlying findings of Amnesty International’s (AI) annual State of the World’s Human Rights report, released for the first time on Thursday. Spanning more than 400 pages, the report covers 159 countries and, according to AI, delivers the most comprehensive overview and analysis of human rights around the world today.

Its overall conclusions are grim: In 2017, human rights suffered tremendous setbacks as the “politics of demonization” become increasingly mainstream. That’s true in nations across the world — including the United States.

“One year ago, millions of people were watching anxiously to see what a Trump presidency would look like,” Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday. Shetty highlighted the dramatic shift ushered in by the Trump administration as campaign pledges turned into policies.

“What we find in 2017 is that hateful rhetoric crossed over into hateful reality,” he said.

The report also noted several troubling global trends that followed Trump’s election. “What happens here [the United States] has resonance for the rest of the world,” Shetty said.

Shetty and other speakers specifically pointed to a number of White House policy decisions with severe implications for people both inside and outside of the country. At the forefront of the discussion were the president’s travel bans targeting refugees and citizens from a range of predominately Muslim-majority nations (the first two versions of the ban exclusively targeted citizens from these countries along with all refugees). The “Muslim ban” divided families, shut out asylum seekers, and caused mass-panic and confusion at airports around the country.


The AI report also calls attention to Trump’s long-proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall and his attempts to take away health care access for millions of people, as well as protections for LGBTQ workers and students. A decision to proceed with the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the water source of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other indigenous communities, is also cited in the report.

Trump is not the only offender cited in the AI report. Myanmar (also called Burma) was singled out for its mass atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority population, actions which have alarmed human rights advocates around the world. Since late August 2017, some 655,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, hoping to escape years of state-sanctioned apartheid and discrimination.

While Myanmar’s crackdown has targeted one particular group, other countries are facing more widespread unrest. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs and crime has sparked a crisis, with extrajudicial executions and summary killings haunting the country. Duterte has also imposed martial law on the island of Mindanao and targeted members of the press — the president has accused journalists of spreading “fake news,” borrowing a phrase from Trump himself. Standing next to Trump last November, Duterte referred to reporters as “spies,” a comment which drew laughs from the U.S. president.

Leaders in a number of countries — including Libya, Syria, and Venezuela — have similarly followed suit. Polish President Andrzej Duda shared his own anti-media bonding moment with Trump last July, nodding as his U.S. counterpart slammed the press during a televised meeting. He later echoed Trump’s “fake news” refrain in a tweet.


Poland’s growing struggles with human rights are reflected in the AI report — the country’s far-right government has targeted the judiciary, in addition to rolling back abortion access in the overwhelmingly Catholic country. Nationalism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-refugee sentiment are also on the rise. In November, 60,000 people participated in an Independence Day march widely seen as an endorsement of white supremacy.

“[Last year] brought into sharp focus [the reality that] fear and hatred is a recipe for nothing but violence,” Shetty said.

Despite the gloomy outlook, there’s some good news: According to the report, social activism has surged across the globe, even as state-sponsored hate has risen. Massive protests in Poland, Venezuela, and Iran have demonstrated the power of popular dissent. Many of those movements have been driven by some of society’s most vulnerable members.

In 2017, “[the world saw] ordinary people — particularly youth — stand up,” Shetty said.

That’s held true in the United States as well. As Shetty spoke on Wednesday, teen activists were busy staging a protest in front of the U.S. Capitol building and the White House, demanding an end to gun violence. They reflect a nationwide, predominately student-led movement formed in the aftermath of a deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida last week. Seventeen people — most of them younger than 18 — were killed when a lone gunman entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas campus and opened fire. As students in D.C. protested, others rallied at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee with similar demands.  Around the country, teenagers led walkouts and rallies.

Their protest is part of a larger wave of activism born in the wake of Trump’s election. AI’s report specifically points to the massive Women’s March, demonstrations against Trump’s travel bans, and the growing #MeToo movement as a sign of things to come.


“We are witnessing history in the making as people rise up and demand justice in greater numbers,” Shetty said in a separate press release. “If leaders fail to discern what is driving their people to protest, then this ultimately will be their own undoing. People have made it abundantly clear that they want human rights: the onus now is on governments to show that they are listening.”

Whether or not those governments are listening is unclear. Activist movements are off to a strong start — but only time will tell if they can endure. Tirana Hassan, AI’s crisis response director, said on Wednesday that the “paralysis that plagued the international community” can only be combated by activism and civic dissent.

“Without ordinary people pushing their leaders to take action,” she said, “we will continue to see this paralysis.”