Refugee crisis: ‘You see walking skeletons’

“In Madaya, you see walking skeletons.”

This is the nightmare lived by Mohammad, a resident of a small besieged town in Syria as told to Amnesty International. “The children are always crying,” he said.

“Every day, I feel that I will faint and not wake up again.”

“I have a wife and three children. We eat once every two days to make sure that whatever we buy doesn’t run out. On other days, we have water and salt and sometimes the leaves from trees.”

It is the kind of horror refugees are fleeing all over the world.

The millions of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Myanmar and elsewhere — living in limbo or braving desperate journeys in search of asylum — are, for many of us, the most visible symbol of how governments are stripping people of fundamental human rights, in this case the right to seek safe haven. In 2015, 30 or more countries broke a once-sacred principle of international law by forcing refugees to return to countries where they would be in danger.

Syrian refugees flee embattled city of Aleppo
Syrian refugees flee embattled city of Aleppo

Amnesty International’s annual report on the state of human rights in the world, published Tuesday, warns that this is the tip of the iceberg. The international human rights system has been pushed to the breaking point by governments.

Governments are also cracking down on the people who defend our rights, such as lawyers, journalists and activists. Eighty-eight countries conducted unfair trials, and at least 61 countries locked up people who were simply exercising their rights and freedoms. Amnesty International considers many of those people prisoners of conscience.

The attack on human rights accelerated in 2015, driven by the ill-conceived reaction of many governments to national security threats, real or perceived. This took different guises, from lawyers locked-up in China to heavy-handed counterterror measures in France.

Indeed, our report documents the abuse of counterterror laws to violate people’s human rights in countries such as Angola, China, Egypt, France, Russia, Thailand and the United Kingdom.

These trends are a threat, not only to our human rights, but to the very systems that protect human rights. Rights taken for granted for decades could now be at risk.

The United Nations’ human rights bodies, the International Criminal Court and regional human rights bodies are being undermined by governments attempting to evade oversight of their domestic records. You may not hear about these bodies every day, but without them to turn to, your rights would just be words written on paper.

The International Criminal Court is under attack from several of the nations that helped create it, with countries such as South Africa and Kenya threatening to pull out.

Burundi has rejected African Union peacekeeping attempts even as its crisis escalates, with dead bodies in the streets and mass graves uncovered by Amnesty International.

Australia broke international law by bribing smugglers to turn boats carrying refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar away from their shores.

The European Court of Human Rights is one of the staunchest defenders of human rights in the world. But in 2015, the UK government has tried to weaken the court’s mandate to make binding judgments. And in Russia, its decisions can now be overruled by the country’s Constitutional Court.

Governments are not even hiding their intentions. They are openly attacking the very foundations of our freedoms, seeking to turn opinion against “human rights” by packaging them in opposition to national security, law and order and “national values.”

The system constructed to protect human rights 70 years ago is today at risk of unraveling with potentially disastrous human consequences.

Do we want societies that are based on rule of law and the even treatment of all people or societies that protect the few?

You may think this is about protecting somebody else’s rights, but we cannot take the systems that protect human rights for granted. If we do, we risk seeing our own rights abused.

We must continue to stand up for other people’s human rights, from the Syrian refugees I met in Lebanon to Internet users whose online communications are being spied on.

We must fight for their human rights, and in so doing, defend the very idea of human rights itself.

Salil Shetty is secretary-general of global human rights organization Amnesty International.

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