The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Human rights and democracy eroding worldwide, U.S. finds

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about human rights on April 12. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Respect for human rights and democratic norms eroded around the world in 2021, as repressive states increasingly detained opponents and struck out beyond their borders at those seen posing a threat, the Biden administration said on Tuesday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken described what he called a continued “recession” in basic rights and the rule of law over the past year as he unveiled the U.S. government’s annual assessment of the global human rights situation.

“Governments are growing more brazen, reaching across borders to threaten and attack critics,” Blinken said, citing an alleged effort by Iran’s government to abduct an Iranian American journalist from New York; efforts by the Assad regime to threaten Syrians cooperating with German steps to try former regime officials; and Belarus’s diversion of a commercial flight to seize a journalist.

Blinken said the jailing of political opponents had become more common in 2021, with more than a million political prisoners detained in more than 65 countries. He singled out the imprisonment of peaceful protesters in Cuba; activists and advocates in Russia and Egypt, including Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Egyptian human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Baqr; and opposition presidential candidates in Benin.

Hubris and isolation led Vladimir Putin to misjudge Ukraine

The report laid out a litany of alleged abuses by both allies and rivals, including forced disappearances in Saudi Arabia and what it characterized as ongoing acts of genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in China. It also cited reprisals by Taliban authorities in Afghanistan against members of the former government and steps to limit freedoms of women and girls, as well as alleged abuses by all parties in the conflict in Ethiopia, including government troops from Eritrea.

Because the report is focused on trends in 2021, it did not explicitly address Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. But Blinken, in remarks to reporters, said that Russian forces’ abuses had been numerous since its offensive began on Feb. 24, including alleged executions, rape and the deprivation of civilians’ access to food, water and medicine.

“In few places have the human consequences of this decline been as stark as they are in the Russian government’s brutal war on Ukraine,” he said, pointing to apparent atrocities revealed by the recent withdrawal of Russian forces from some parts of the country. “We see what this receding tide is leaving in its wake — the bodies, hands bound, left on streets; the theaters, train stations, apartment buildings reduced to rubble with civilians inside.”

The Biden administration has already said it believes Russian forces are committing war crimes in Ukraine. Last week, U.S. officials helped orchestrate an effort to suspend Russia from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

Blinken said the United States would not be spared scrutiny over its own human rights violations. Since taking office, administration officials have said they would openly acknowledge chronic problems at home, including police violence against Black Americans.

“We take seriously our responsibility to address these shortcomings, and we know that the way we do it matters,” he said.

Sarah Yager, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, welcomed the report but said it failed to highlight the U.S. role in overseas conflicts where civilians have suffered widespread harm, including in Afghanistan and Yemen. The United States continues to provide arms and aircraft maintenance support to Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition battling Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“Always a little odd to read about other’s human rights abuses as if US had nothing to do with them. e.g. no mention of US support to Saudi [Arabia] in Yemen but the #HumanRightsReport discusses Iran support to Houthis,” she said on Twitter. “No mention of US in Afghanistan or civilian harm caused in Kabul.”

Asked about how the Biden administration would balance human rights against other American interests, and how such acts would affect American partnerships with countries with poor human rights records, Blinken said that officials sometimes chose to press foreign governments in private, and sometimes in public, including in the annual rights report.

“It doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe. We apply the same standard everywhere,” he said.

Such strains have been particularly visible in recent months between the Biden administration and key Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia as U.S. officials seek to secure increased energy output amid the war in Ukraine and Gulf officials bristle at a host of issues, including what they see as overstated criticism on human rights.

John Hudson contributed to this report.