NEW YORK (February 3, 2021) – Following the inauguration of President Joseph Biden in the United States on January 20, 2021, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) encourages the new administration to uphold its commitment to promoting democracy and condemn human rights abuses worldwide. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria, China, Russia, and Uganda present just some of the most pressing human rights issues in 2021.
“Authoritarian government is a threat to human rights worldwide and is at the structural root of many global problems, including poverty, war, and refugee crises,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF. “The Biden administration must take decisive action to stand up to dictators and hold them accountable for their abuses. They must be categorical and unequivocal.”
As Nicolás Maduro further tightens his grip on Venezuela, despite overwhelming international recognition of Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president, the country is in one of the worst peacetime economic crises the world has seen in decades. More than 5 million refugees have fled the regime’s oppression, creating a regional crisis, with Venezuela on track to lead the world in the number of displaced people in 2021. Of those who remain in Venezuela, the majority live in critical poverty. Starvation and malnourishment are pressing issues, and access to clean water is limited. The rates of infant and maternal mortality, unemployment, and violent crime have all soared to levels never seen in the country’s history. The arrival of the coronavirus in Venezuela in early 2020 only worsened the situation; the country’s healthcare infrastructure was failing even before COVID-19, marked by medicine and equipment shortages. The regime has further cracked down on any opposition, with police indiscriminately killing civilians, and crimes against humanity such as torture and enforced disappearance employed as common tactics against anyone who opposes Maduro. Foreign interference in Venezuela involves a level of de facto control of the government’s security apparatus by the Cuban and Russian governments. The country’s mineral resources are under the control of the Chinese, Turkish, Cuban, and Russian governments. Meanwhile, Maduro’s regime has become one of the Western hemisphere’s most influential cocaine cartels.
While Saudi Arabia has tried to present an image of modernity to the world, whitewashing its reputation by hosting sporting events and celebrity performances, in reality, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is the de facto dictator, ruling without regard for human rights. Responsible for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, MBS has continued a campaign of targeting and silencing any opposition, no matter where in the world they are. Within Saudi Arabia, human rights activists, particularly women, are routinely arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
North Korea, ruled by Kim Jong-un, remains the most repressive regime on the planet and presents one of the biggest threats worldwide through its nuclear program. The regime perpetrates crimes against humanity, with arbitrary detention and execution as common punishments. In 2020, the situation in North Korea was exacerbated further by both the COVID-19 pandemic, and Kim Jong-un’s continued development of nuclear weapons. In an effort to prevent the coronavirus from crossing its borders, North Korea — which does not have the means or infrastructure to respond to a public health crisis — completely closed itself off from the international community. This move nearly destroyed North Korea’s economy, leaving food supplies stretched thin. However, despite the economic situation, Kim Jong-un seems to intend to push ahead with the nuclear program, potentially even at the cost of feeding the North Korean population.
China remains one of the most influential countries in the international community, with a horrific record on human rights. The opacity with which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) handled the discovery of the coronavirus in Hubei at the end of 2019 helped create the global pandemic that has now killed over two million people worldwide. Additionally, at least one million people, mostly of the Uyghur minority, have been detained in China’s concentration camps in the Xinjiang province, where they are subject to torture, forced sterilization, and extrajudicial killing. In August, the Biden campaign labeled the Chinese regime’s treatment of the Uyghur people a genocide — a stance that the US administration took as well, on January 19th. The CCP has also cracked down on Hong Kong’s population, enacting a new national security law in June which allows the regime to crush dissent and the independent pro-democracy movement.
As a nuclear-capable superpower that has shown its willingness to engage in both traditional and cyber warfare, Russia’s impact on international security is well-documented. Under Putin’s misrule, the domestic human rights situation has continued to deteriorate in recent years. The regime responds to protests with excessive force and arbitrary prosecutions, and allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees are widespread. Civil society groups and NGOs are targeted by repressive laws, as is the political opposition. Alexei Navalny, the leading opposition candidate, was poisoned by Russian government agents in August, the latest in a series of high-profile poisonings of Kremlin critics attributed to the regime. Upon his return to Russia, Navalny was immediately arrested. In anticipation of Navalny’s arrest, the Russian Anti-Corruption Foundation curated a list of Putin’s associates to be targeted with sanctions, which they delivered to the US government last Friday. Yesterday, he was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison under the pretense of having violated his parole by seeking emergency treatment in Germany, following an assassination attempt by Russia’s secret police. This past weekend, more than 5,000 protestors, as well as journalists, were also arrested in demonstrations.
In March, the Syrian conflict — which has left hundreds of thousands of people dead, including civilians and children, and thousands more disappeared and imprisoned — will enter its tenth year. Syria, along with Venezuela, is the leading home country of the world’s refugee population, and has the largest internally displaced population as well. Systemic torture, enforced disappearance, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings are common. War crimes and crimes against humanity are perpetrated indiscriminately by the Assad regime and terrorist organizations such as ISIS, and there is evidence that the Russian and Turkish militaries commited war crimes as well. While many Syrian and human rights activists have criticized the international community’s lack of response to the Syrian crisis, there were some steps toward justice taken in 2020. In the United States, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act came into force, permitting targeted sanctions against individuals and businesses who are complicit with the Assad regime. Additionally, the groundbreaking trial of former Syrian regime officials Anwar Raslan and Eyad Al Gharib began in Koblenz, Germany for their role in the torture of at least 4,000 detainees in Syria, demonstrating the important role democracies have in holding authoritarian regimes accountable for their crimes against humanity.
While dictators remain in power in states throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, recent events in Uganda are an example of how authoritarians manipulate democratic institutions to consolidate their own power, which should be condemned by the international community. Uganda has never seen a peaceful transfer of power, and the current president, Yoweri Museveni, has ruled the country since 1986. Since November, when opposition candidate Bobi Wine was arrested and subsequently released on bail, there have been nationwide protests, which security forces have responded to with lethal violence. The violence did not abate before the January 14 general election, with the regime shutting down social media in the days leading up to the polls. After Museveni was declared the winner, amidst allegations of fraud, Bobi Wine was placed under house arrest. A court ruled that his detention was unlawful, and ordered security forces to release him. While the United States has long relied on maintaining relations with Uganda for national and regional security purposes, it is imperative that the Biden administration holds the Museveni regime accountable for human rights violations.
“The Biden administration should use its platform as the leadership of one of the world’s most influential democracies to uphold and promote human rights globally,” said Halvorssen. “Over the past year, autocratic rulers have weaponized COVID-19 and expanded their hold on power. As the leaders of the free world, it is critical time for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to take action and prevent authoritarian regimes worldwide from further curtailing individual rights.”
In 2019, the world continued its fourteenth year of global decline of political rights and civil liberties. The 2020 pandemic gave states an excuse to crack down on human rights even further, under the guise of responding to the public health emergency. It is urgent now more than ever that President Biden positions the United States to be an international leader in safeguarding human rights worldwide.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.