Campaigns such as Brexit and the rise of populist leaders including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte have fuelled new levels of hate, intolerance and bigotry.

But the world will pay a heavy price for playing the politics of fear in 2017, a new report has warned.

The election of US President-elect Donald Trump after a "campaign fermenting hatred and intolerance" and the rising influence of political parties in Western Europe that reject universal rights pose a bigger risk to the world than ever before.

The Human Rights Watch 2017 World Reportreleased today warns the politics of fear has allowed dangerous and popular leaders to flourish at the expense of the very people who elected them.


In the 687 page report's introduction, HRW executive Director Kenneth Roth warns of "a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights not as an essential check on official power but as an impediment to the majority will."

HRW, which classifies itself as a non-profit, non-governmental and partisan organisation, also singled out the governments of Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and China for taking backward steps for human rights.

It said populist leaders in these countries used propaganda to fuel their own rise to power and this directly challenged the laws and institutions which promoted dignity, tolerance and equality.

HRW said such leaders have "substituted their own authority, rather than accountable government and the rule of law, as a guarantor of prosperity and security".

This has also been "bolstered by propaganda operations that denigrate legal standards and disdain factual analysis.

And voters paid a heavy price for this, HRW warn.

"The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights," Mr Roth said.

"Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism. They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks."

But according to Mr Roth this was the quickest and easiest path to tyranny.

Singling out Mr Trump, Mr Roth said the US election illustrated the politics of intolerance, adding the President-elect responded to disconnected and disenfranchised voters with rhetoric that rejected basic principles of dignity and equality.

Threats of massive deportations of immigrants, curtailing women's rights and restrictions on media freedoms were just some of the concerns HRW had about Mr Trump's election.

However it wasn't just the US which earned a rebuke in this year's report.

Europe was also given a bad wrap over the rise of populism there which has blamed economic dislocation on migration, the consequences of which became apparent with Brexit.

The populist-fuelled passions of the moment obscuring the longer-term dangers to a society of strongman rule was another danger to individual freedoms, HRW warn.

According to HRW, Vladimir Putin has responded to popular discontent with a repressive agenda, restrictions on free speech, as well as sanctions for online dissent and laws restricting independent groups and minorities.

China was also singled out with leader Xi Jinping embarking "on the most intense crackdown on dissent since the Tiananmen era" in response to concerns about slowdown in economic growth.

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad also earned a mention over his war crime strategy which targets civilians in opposition areas, "flouting the most fundamental requirements of the laws of war."

Turkish leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was criticised for taking advantage of a coup attempt to crush opposition voices.

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, who has earned strong criticism for his war on drugs from various global leaders, was criticised in this report over openly calling for summary executions of suspected drug dealers.

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte was criticised over openly calling for summary executions of suspected drug dealers. Photo / Getty Images
Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte was criticised over openly calling for summary executions of suspected drug dealers. Photo / Getty Images

Last September Mr Duterte slammed the European Union, which questioned his hard line policy which has seen thousands of Filipinos killed since he swept to power in a popular vote last May.

The firebrand leader told the EU "f*** you" and in a televised address stuck his finger up at the EU's questioning of human rights abuses.

"I have read the condemnation of the European Union. I'm telling them, 'F**k you,'" he said during a conference in his home town city of Davao.

"You should look at history books, encyclopaedia of events. Britain, France has the gall to condemn me. Again, I repeat it, f**ck you."

In the Philippine chapter of the report, HRW spell out the damage Mr Duterte has caused to his country's reputation.

Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said President Duterte has steamrolled human rights protections and elevated unlawful killings of criminal suspects to a cornerstone of government policy in the name of wiping out drug crime.

He said he has used such killings to show the "success" of his anti-drug campaign and urged police to "seize the momentum."

Figures reveal the deadly impact this has had.

Police statistics show that from July 1 to November 25, law enforcement officers killed an estimated 1959 suspected "drug pushers and users."

According to HRW, that death toll constitutes a nearly 20-fold jump over the 68 such police killings recorded between January 1 and June 15.

Ultimately however, HRW said it was time for people to question fact over fiction and not allow "dangerous demagogues" to build popular support by proffering false explanations and cheap solutions.

"If the appeal of the strongman and the voices of intolerance prevail, the world risks entering a dark era," Mr Roth said.

"We should never underestimate the tendency of demagogues who sacrifice the rights of others in our name today to jettison our rights tomorrow when their real priority - retaining power is in jeopardy."


Australian director of HRW Elaine Pearson said 2016 was in many ways summed up by the events of Brexit and the election of hard line leaders such as Trump and Duterte.

Ms Pearson said the language in the report was strong but that it was important to point out the risk some leaders posed to human rights and people's freedoms.

Ms Pearson said Australia wasn't immune to such rhetoric, saying the re-emergence of One Nation to parliament last year showed the politics of fear existed here as well.

"Pauline Hanson has become attractive to Australians who are feeling disenfranchised," she said.

"People want someone to blame and minorities are an easy target."

Ms Pearson said similar rhetoric about anti-immigration and banning Muslims was also evident in our own election campaign but such talk was inconsistent with the view Australia had of itself.

Like Mr Trump, Ms Hanson found it much easier to blame problems on minorities rather than address the bigger issues at hand, she said.

She said HRW took a partisan approach at all times and pointed out the organisation criticised all sides of politics including Barack Obama for not taking a tougher approach to human rights abuses taking place in the US under his watch.

However she said Mr Trump should raise concerns for other reasons.

"Trump has used xenophobia to stoke fear and has played on people's fears," she said.

"Making scapegoats of different communities hasn't helped. He has demonised Muslims, mocked a disabled reporter and even attacked a judge for his Mexican ancestry."

Ms Pearson said his views on immigrants, women and even sexual assault were questionable.

She also said such views were dangerous because Mr Trump spoke to many Americans' discontent with economic stagnation and an increasingly multicultural society in a way that breached basic principles of dignity and equality.