Russia, China cracking down as leaders fear grip may wane - Human Rights Watch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Russia and China are imposing their biggest clampdown on civil society in a generation and Europe’s efforts to manage its migrant crisis risk undermining its core values, Human Rights Watch says in its annual global review.

Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth speaks during a conference in Beirut January 29, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/Files

The review of more than 90 countries’ human rights records, released in Istanbul on Wednesday, highlighted Russia and China but said rights crackdowns are also taking place in countries from Ethiopia to Turkey.

“In China and Russia ... the leadership has an implicit pact with their people: ‘We will give you increased prosperity, if you let us govern without accountability,” the group’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, said in an interview.

“As the economy heads downhill, they worry about popular reaction ... and we see in both Russia and China a crackdown on civil society of the sort we have not seen in a generation.”

Roth cited moves that make life harder for civil society groups in Russia which receive foreign funding. Chinese activists struggle to establish rights groups and risk imprisonment under broad uses of anti-terror laws, he said.

Some of it was the result of the proliferation of social media.

“If you are an autocrat, your ultimate fear is to see your citizens in the streets protesting against you ... Social media is extremely difficult to control,” Roth said.

China rejects any criticism of its human rights record, saying it is a country ruled by law and that it opposes external interference in its domestic affairs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will not allow the West to use civil rights groups to foment unrest in Russia, suggesting their activities are sometimes politically-motivated and designed to undermine the tightly-controlled political system he has spent 15 years shaping.


Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the influx of refugees to Europe from Syria and elsewhere has coincided with the rise of populist political parties exploiting Islamophobia.

“The refugee crisis threatens the openness of the European Union, but it is threatening more fundamental values,” Roth said. “We feel a lot of the popular reaction against refugees is a product of the chaotic nature of the flow so far.”

Roth said one spillover from this was that Europe was not focusing on Turkey’s military crackdown on Kurdish militants and the prosecution of critical journalists, politicians and academics who accuse President Tayyip Erdogan of increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

“There’s an urgent need for the international community to speak out ... but unfortunately, Europe is so preoccupied with enlisting the Turkish government with the refugee flow, there’s relatively little public attention on the crackdown on rights that is currently taking place here,” he said.

Erdogan has vowed to continue operations until Turkey is “cleansed” of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency since 1984 and is deemed a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and European Union.

Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.