As 2020 dawns, we face consequential times for human-rights protection around the world. If ever there was a need for a resolution for a new decade, this is it: put human rights first.
A tumultuous decade of widespread conflict and demonizing politics is wrapping up; far too much war, alongside the rise of politicians everywhere peddling bigotry and fear.
These past 10 years have witnessed the unforgivable and unending agony of Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Gaza, Venezuela, Libya, Ukraine, the Rohingya crisis, the mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China, and so many other corners of our world racked by turmoil and violence.
It has also been the decade of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping and an increasing cadre of world leaders who have deliberately set out to undermine human rights. They unapologetically stoke hate, racism and misogyny, rising to and wielding power on the backs of women, refugees, racial and religious minorities, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ people and human-rights defenders.
We have faced those disturbing currents in Canada as well, be it Quebec’s Bill 21, the “war room” campaign against environmentalists and Indigenous-rights activists in Alberta or the toxic anti-refugee messages brought into last year’s federal election by the People’s Party of Canada.
Yet, it has also been an incredible decade of inspiring choruses of resistance demanding rights and justice; propelled by unprecedented waves of protest, determination, indignation and courage, literally all over the world. Resistance so often led by youth and by women.
This decade has been a breathless time of mass mobilization, as staggering numbers of people have spilled out into public squares, streets and alleyways in communities large and small: The “Arab Spring” protests across the Middle East and North Africa, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, FridaysForFuture climate strikes, the #MeToo movement and Women’s Marches and the March for Our Lives against gun violence in the United States.
Protesters who refused to give up have toppled cruel leaders, stopped unjust laws and catalyzed struggles against deep inequities in Sudan, Hong Kong, Chile, Haiti, Algeria and Lebanon; and have been met with terrifying violence from security forces leading to hundreds of deaths in Iran and Iraq.
The decade has also been marked by the tension of technology’s wonders and threats. The digital world has opened up exciting new platforms of communication and means of accessing and sharing information, often to considerable benefit for human-rights movements. However, we have also witnessed an explosion of hate, racism and sexism on social media; growing awareness that the rise of artificial intelligence brings unimagined human-rights worries; and new tools of state surveillance and intrusion into our privacy that pose some of the most insidious and chilling threats to human rights that we have ever seen.
Above it all – as we move into the 2020s – the urgency of responding to the gravest human-rights challenge of our time, the global climate crisis, deepens daily. And the outright refusal of governments and businesses, including in Canada, to pursue climate action and deliver climate justice that is truly and ambitiously serious, stands out as perhaps the most unforgivable human-rights failing of the decade.
The decade behind us reminds us that the threats to human-rights protection run deep and demand vigilance; the power of the people is, ultimately, unstoppable; there is great risk in embracing all that technology offers without addressing its many perils; and that if we do not safeguard our one and only shared global climate, all of our human-rights effort will ultimately be for naught.
And therefore with deep resolve it is imperative and it is incumbent upon us all to make the 2020s a very different decade.
A decade in which women’s equality, women’s leadership and women’s power is consistently at the fore.
A decade in which we at long last deliver the commitment – an empty one for far too long – of a world that will “never again” witness mass atrocities.
A decade in which we all live up to our shared, personal responsibility to say no to racism, bigotry and hate.
A decade that tackles the climate crisis; finally embracing the catastrophic reality that without a stable climate, all human-rights struggles inevitably mean nothing.
Quite simply, a decade that – no matter the cost, the inconvenience, the controversy or the opposing interests – puts human rights first.
This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.