2021 was supposed to be the year of change, of rebuilding a better world, but instead it was marked by injustice. Amnesty International reveals it in data and numbers, as it published its new Human Rights Report for 2021 and 2022 on 1 April.
Globally, governments have unduly prevented and dispersed peaceful protests, in some cases using the pretext of provisions to contain the spread of Covid-19. “Attacks on journalists, critical voices and human rights defenders, including those defending the rights of women and LGBT people, have been an integral part of this wave of violent backlash against free expression”.
A regressive trend adopted in government policies has been the drafting and introduction of new legislation restricting the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Human rights defenders and people critical of governments have continued to courageously make their voices heard, despite the attacks. In 2021, for example, the number of strategic lawsuits against public participation (slapps) brought against human rights defenders with the aim of intimidating and harassing them increased. In at least 84 of the 154 countries monitored by Amnesty International, cases of human rights defenders being arbitrarily detained have been documented. In some countries, governments took the dramatic decision to close down NGOs or media outlets and governments also increasingly used technological tools, including spyware, to target journalists, human rights defenders, political opponents and other critical voices. The year 2021 also saw a growing securitarian trend among governments towards civic space. Amnesty International documented the unnecessary and/or excessive use of force against protesters in at least 85 of 154 countries monitored, in all regions.
Some governments also carried out illegal expulsions: Amnesty International documented credible allegations of refugees and migrants being illegally returned to their countries of origin or sent back at borders in at least 48 of 154 countries monitored in 2021.
The Americas, the most unequal continent
Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the Americas were the most unequal region in the world in terms of income inequality. According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac), the average unemployment rate among women in the region was 12.7 per cent, compared to 9.7 per cent for men.
Measures taken to protect women and girls proved inadequate throughout the region and investigations into cases of gender-based violence were often irregular. In Mexico, for example, violence against women remained rampant. In Colombia, where the Colombian Observatory on Femicides recorded 432 feminicides in the first eight months of the year, security forces regularly committed acts of sexual violence against women. Both Paraguay and Puerto Rico have declared a state of emergency due to the surge in violence against women.
Despite Argentina’s historic decision in late 2020 to decriminalise and legalise abortion up to the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, other countries did not follow suit. In Chile, a bill that would have decriminalised abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy was rejected. In Colombia, the Constitutional Court failed to rule on an appeal filed by the NGO coalition Causa Justa, which called for the decriminalisation of abortion. In the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, attempts to decriminalise abortion by authorising it in very limited circumstances failed to win the approval of their respective legislative assemblies. In Honduras, in January, Congress approved a constitutional reform that makes it more difficult to lift bans on abortion and same-sex marriage, although a constitutional challenge to the ban on abortion in all circumstances was still before the Supreme Court of Justice at the end of the year. In the USA, state governments enacted an unprecedented number of anti-abortion restrictions during 2021.
Indigenous peoples in the Americas also continued to be affected by the inadequate exercise of some of their rights. Particularly serious is the situation in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela. In Brazil, Indigenous Peoples have not been protected from invasions of their territories, deforestation and mining activities.
In many countries, including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela, governments have continued to allow large-scale mining, agro-industrial and infrastructure projects without obtaining the consent of the people. In Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru, members of indigenous communities were injured or killed by security forces or armed civilians in violent attacks and shootings. In Canada, the remains of hundreds of native children were found buried at former boarding schools established by the Canadian government and administered by local churches.
The right to freedom of expression, association and assembly came under attack in several countries in the region. Journalists and people critical of the government have suffered intimidation, harassment, threats, censorship, prosecution or denial of access to government information in countries such as Brazil, Canada, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela. In Colombia, the Foundation for Freedom of the Press reported 402 attacks on media outlets covering social protests.
The use of excessive force to suppress protests was common to many countries, including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Cases of arbitrary detention were reported in many countries, including Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay.
Little movement also took place on the climate change front. The Escazú agreement finally came into force in April, but it did nothing to stop the ongoing environmental destruction. The Americas remained one of the most dangerous regions in the world for environmental and human rights defenders. Human rights defenders were the victims of murders in several countries in the region, including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. According to the Centre for Human Rights Defenders and Justice, there were 743 attacks on activists in 2021, an increase of 145 per cent compared to 2020.
Africa, between conflicts and inequalities
Civilians continued to pay the price for armed conflicts in Africa. In Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan, parties to the conflict committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Every conflict in the region has been marked by deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Almost all actors involved in Africa’s armed conflicts have used sexual violence as a war tactic. Another war tactic used in some conflicts was to block or limit access to humanitarian aid. In conflict-affected countries, children faced almost insurmountable difficulties in accessing education. In Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Niger, Boko Haram, Gsim, Isgs and other armed groups continued to ban so-called ‘western education’ and committed war crimes by attacking schools.
Conflicts in the region continued to displace millions of people from their homes. Most of the region’s refugees were hosted by a small number of countries, including Cameroon, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Rwanda and Sudan, while Uganda had the largest refugee population in all of Africa, with over 1.5 million people. Paradoxically, some of the host countries, such as Drc and Ethiopia, also produced huge refugee flows.
On the pandemic front, efforts by governments to stem the tide of Covid-19 have been hampered by global inequalities in vaccine distribution, created by pharmaceutical companies and rich nations. By the end of 2021, less than eight per cent of the continent’s 1.2 billion people had been fully vaccinated. The pandemic has led to school closures and disruptions, making access to education even more complicated.
Even in 2021, measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 were used by governments as a justification to suppress the right to dissent and other freedoms. The first instinct of many governments has been to ban peaceful protests, citing health and security concerns, as for example in Cameroon, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire. Similarly, in countries such as Eswatini and South Sudan, organisers were arrested in advance and internet access was blocked, in what appeared to be an attempt to derail planned protests. In over 12 countries, including Angola, Benin, Chad, Eswatini, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Sudan, many deaths were caused by security forces.
Gender discrimination and other forms of inequality remained an entrenched reality in African countries: high levels of gender-based violence, as well as limited access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, early and forced marriages, and the exclusion of pregnant girls from school. LGBT people have also been harassed, arrested and prosecuted because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In several countries, many people were killed in waves of intercommunal violence and political unrest.
Governments continued to curtail media freedom. In Angola, Burkina Faso, Drc, Madagascar, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo and other places, the authorities suspended newspapers and TV and radio stations. In some countries, such as Ghana and Zambia, the authorities raided media outlets, interrupting broadcasts and destroying property. Internet disruptions and social media shutdowns were reported in several countries in the region, including Eswatini, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.
Several countries were severely affected by periods of drought, exacerbated by climate change, while in others, concerns about environmental degradation emerged.
Who does what: who leads the Asia-Pacific crisis
According to Amnesty’s findings, in 2021 several countries in the Asia-Pacific region plunged into a full-blown human rights crisis. The coup in Myanmar saw a fierce response from the military, with hundreds of people killed and thousands more arbitrarily detained, while the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August was accompanied by war crimes and the abrupt curtailment of fundamental rights and freedoms. The case of China is also noted, where crimes against humanity against Muslims in Xinjiang continued and the human rights situation deteriorated, particularly in Hong Kong. Many governments also continued to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to suppress rights. New legislation was enacted in several countries to punish the dissemination of ‘false’ or ‘fabricated’ information, and existing laws were used to silence critics and to prevent and disperse protests.
This has been accompanied by a growing intolerance of all forms of dissent: controls on the media and the internet have been tightened in many countries. Excessive force was often used against peaceful protesters. Alongside Afghanistan, the situation of women and girls worsened in many countries in the context of the pandemic and related restrictions. Women working in the informal sector were among those who plunged further and further into poverty, and throughout the region, women and girls continued to suffer frequent incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.
Campaigns against LGBT people were conducted in several countries. Throughout the region, Indigenous peoples increasingly suffered the effects of environmental degradation. Tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Myanmar were forcibly displaced or sought refuge across borders. However, many were illegally repatriated from neighbouring countries and sent back to situations where they were at serious risk of human rights violations.
FOCUS 1 - The regression in Europe and Central Asia
For Amnesty in 2021, authoritarianism has taken hold in Europe and Central Asia. “A number of states have shown contempt for human rights with unprecedented effrontery, threatening to render human rights commitments a dead letter and turning regional organizations into meaningless forums for empty “dialogue”. In some countries, these trends have been highlighted by the continued abuse of state power and the erosion of judicial accountability, the repression of freedoms and the gagging of dissenting voices”.
The organisation also points out that human rights defenders throughout the region have faced restrictions, unfair prosecution and intimidation, and xenophobic narratives about migration have permeated public opinion, while policies have become even more rigid. This is the direction taken by the decision of a dozen member states to ask the EU executive body to water down refugee protection rules. The authoritarian turn was also marked by legislative initiatives that disapproved of and restricted the rights of LGBT people. The internal retreat was accompanied by more aggressive international relations.
FOCUS 2: no improvements in MENA
There is no sign of improvement in the Near East and North Africa region either. The report notes that injustices and distortions are still present. Freedom of expression remained severely restricted in the region: many governments made freedom of speech a crime, continued to censor the internet and invest in digital surveillance equipment. Human rights defenders faced prosecution, jail time, administrative sanctions, threats and intimidation. The activities of civil society organisations were criminalised and throughout the region, security forces did not hesitate to use excessive force to suppress peaceful protests.
As in the African context, parties to armed conflicts committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. “The authorities have restricted access to humanitarian aid in Syria and Yemen, making the condition of health systems already close to collapse even more critical. Other military powers have fuelled violations through illicit arms transfers and the provision of direct military support to the belligerents”. The authorities also continued to arrest and detain refugees and migrants for indefinite periods, often without any legal basis, and migrant workers were particularly vulnerable due to the kafala system, which ties residence permits to a contract.
Impunity for violence against women, from sexual harassment to so-called ‘honour killings’, continued unchecked, without any commitment from states. The authorities severely repressed the rights of LGBT people, arresting many because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and subjecting many men to forced anal examinations. Throughout the region, members of religious and ethnic minorities suffered deep-rooted discrimination.