14 Shocking Global Human Rights Violations of 2013


From rampant violence and sexual abuse against women, to the commission of crimes against humanity by dictators, 2013 was a year filled with pervasive human rights violations worldwide. Government response to the atrocities was disappointing, marked by lack of transparency and accountability, blatant malevolence and a disregard for human life. Yet, international human rights advocates remained tenacious, inciting massive protests and public condemnation in an effort to demand an end to the culture of impunity. Here are some of most outrageous travesties of justice that captured our attention and had us up in arms this year.

1. Unsafe labor conditions in Bangladesh led to world’s worst garment industry tragedy as thousands died in horrific building collapse.

On April 24, the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed six factories that produce clothing for Western brands, collapsed, killing over 1000 factory workers and injuring over 2500 people. While the owners of the factory came under fire for ignoring previous warnings of cracks in the wall, many pointed the blame at global corporations like Walmart and the Gap for exploiting workers for cheap labor and failing to provide adequate fire and building safeguards in factories where their products are made. Worldwide protests ensued with a view to putting pressure on major retailers to sign a legally binding accord aimed at improving labor conditions in Bangladesh, which to date has 100 signatories.

2. Egypt’s epidemic of violence and sexual abuse resulted in more than 600 deaths and 91 women assaulted in four days of riots at Tahrir Square.

On the first anniversary of the election of President Mohamed Morsi on June 30, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in Tahrir Square in Cairo demanding the dictator’s resignation. During the four days of protests, at least 91 women were attacked and sexually assaulted by mobs, while government leaders and police stood by and failed to intervene. Some women required extensive medical surgery after being subjected to brutal gang rapes and sexual assault with sharp objects. After the protests, survivors came forward to tell their stories and demand better protections for women. While the protests led to the end of Morsi’s presidency, the government downplayed the violence, prompting international calls to improve law enforcement and bring perpetrators to justice. These actions proved fruitless, as security forces again came under fire in August for using live ammunition against citizens resulting in 638 deaths.

3. Burma committed ethnic cleansing against thousands of Rohingya Muslims; 28 children hacked to death and mass graves uncovered.

Burma’s quasi-civilian government was accused of committing crimes against humanity in the Rakhine State for forcibly displacing more than 125,000 Rohingya Muslims, the religious minority. A Human Rights Watch report revealed that authorities denied tens of thousands of stateless Muslims access to humanitarian aid, destroyed mosques, conducted mass arrests and issued a public statement promoting ethnic cleansing. Security forces stood aside and directly assisted Arakanese mobs in attacking and killing Muslim communities. In October, at least 70 Rohingya were killed in a day-long massacre in which 28 children hacked to death. Four mass gravesites were uncovered. The persecution stems from a long internal conflict in Burma essentially emanating from an arbitrary citizenship law passed in 1982 which denies Burmese citizenship to Rohingya on discriminatory ethnic grounds. In recent times, lack of rule of law has led to thousands of Rohingya fleeing the country.

4. North Korea’s large-scale human rights abuses revealed: 120,000 prisoners held in gulags, citizens starved and publicly executed by firing squad.

North Korea’s appalling human rights record is no secret. Following the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011, any hope of improvement in the country was short-lived with the appointment of successor, Kim Jong-un. The young dictator quickly became more ruthless than his father, inflicting mass atrocities against his population. In September, a UN investigation revealed shocking evidence from defectors who compared life in DPRK to that of the German-run concentration camps in WWII. Prisoners in the gulags lucky enough to escape described atrocities including witnessing a woman forced to drown her own baby in a bucket. 120,000 people are still thought to be held in gulags. Public executions by firing squad have also continued at unprecedented levels under Jong-un’s rule, including the execution of the dictator’s own uncle and former girlfriend. The Security Council has been criticized for failing to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court, a move that seems unlikely given North Korea’s long alliance with China.

5. A chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Syria’s ongoing civil war, which in almost three years has claimed the lives of approximately 100,000 people, continued full, force and throttle. In August, Syrian government forces under ruthless leader Bashar al-Assad were suspected of launching chemical weapon attacks on two Damascus suburbs, killing hundreds of civilians including children. Following the attack, an influx of disturbing and emotionally wrenching video footage infiltrated social media. In September, Russia and the United States announced an agreement that would lead to the abolition of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was subsequently tasked with ensuring all chemical weapons and equipment in Syria be destroyed by mid-2014, though many remain skeptical about Assad’s compliance with the order.

6. Uganda, India and Russia passed draconian laws against homosexuality.

While there were increasing wins for gay rights around the globe this year, including a number of U.S. states, LGBT rights took a major step back in other parts of the world. Uganda abolished the death penalty as punishment for having gay sex, but it passed an anti-gay law punishing “aggravated homosexuality” with life imprisonment. The new provision drew international criticism by gay rights activists, particularly after Uganda’s parliament expressed that the anti-gay law was a “Christmas gift” to all Ugandans. Meanwhile, India’s Supreme Court reinstated a ban against homosexuality, making gay sex a criminal offense, prompting human rights groups to file a petition seeking a review of the decision on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional. Russia’s anti-gay laws also came under fire for a bill that banned propaganda of “non-traditional sexual relations."

7. Turkey's Islamic fundamentalist regime attacked secular groups for peacefully assembling. 

Once considered the most modernized and advanced Islamic nation after founding father President Ataturk created a secular state, a number of civil rights violations in 2013 have led to fears that Turkey’s conservative government is heading toward Islamic fundamentalism. This summer, Turkish authorities were accused of using excessive police violence to put down an environmental sit-in over government plans to build a barracks in Gezi Park. During the demonstration, police used live ammunition, tear gas, water cannons and plastic bullets to suppress the masses. Authorities were also accused of sexually abusing female demonstrators and severely beating protestors, leaving more than 8000 people injured. The actions have outraged Turkey’s secular population. Protestors viewed the move as another indicator of the authoritarian propensities of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist party.

8. Qatar’s construction sector rife with migrant worker abuse leading up to World Cup preparation.

This year, the International Trade Union Confederation found that as a result of the construction frenzy surrounding the 2022 World Cup, 12 laborers would die each week unless the Doha government made urgent labor reforms. Half a million extra workers from countries like Nepal, India and Sri Lanka are expected to arrive to work in an effort to complete infrastructure in time for the World Cup kickoff.

 However, the ITUC said the annual death toll could rise to 600 people a year as construction workers are subjected to harsh and dangerous work conditions daily. A comparable study revealed that 44 migrant construction workers from Nepal died in the summer working in exploitive conditions, with workers describing forced labor conditions where they work in 122 degree heat and live in squalor.

9. Forced sterilization for disabled underage girls in Australia sparked outrage as attempts to reform the laws failed.

The involuntary sterilization of disabled people in Australia remains lawful after the Senate ruled that it would not ban the procedure in 2013. Disabled girls are sterilized to manage menstruation and the risks associated with sexual exploitation, which human rights groups argue is a form of violence against women. Australian families are able to apply for court orders to allow involuntary sterilization of their disabled children. A court previously ruled that it was in the best interests of an 11-year-old girl who suffered a neurological disorder to have a hysterectomy, which caused a media storm. Human rights groups argued that fertility is a basic human right and that sterilization is not a substitute for proper education about family planning and support during menstruation. The Human Rights Commission said “one sterilization, one forced or coerced is one too many.”

10. Afghanistan attempted to reintroduce public stoning for adulterers; women were forced to undergo vaginal examinations to prove virginity.

Women’s rights suffered a massive blow in Afghanistan in 2013. Cases of violence against women grew by 28 percent and females continued to be treated as second-class citizens. President Hamid Karzai backed away from government plans to implement a controversial law reintroducing public stoning as punishment for adultery after the draft law was leaked causing international outrage. Women’s rights groups condemned invasive vaginal examinations women are forced to undergo to ascertain “virginity” every time a girl is arrested on a morality charge. As the 2014 deadline to withdraw combat action in Afghanistan approaches, activists fear that the removal of soldiers will trigger further deterioration of the chaotic human rights situation in the country, particularly for women.

11. Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian children resulted in 700 child detentions.

The precarious situation in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israelis led to a number of gross human rights violations committed by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian children. A UNICEF report revealed that in the second quarter of 2013, 700 Palestinian children aged 12-17 were arrested and subjected to solitary confinement, threats of death and sexual assault by Israeli military and police in the occupied West Bank. In November, an Israeli Defense Force soldier on a Ukraine game show nonchalantly discussed killing Palestinian toddlers as young as 3 years old. A 12-year-old Palestinian boy was paralyzed after he was shot and seriously injured by an Israeli solider as he attempted to retrieve his school bag, and a 14-year-old Palestinian girl died en route to hospital this month as a result of tightened Israeli security at Israeli-controlled checkpoints, prompting public outrage.

12. New wave of repression against civil society swept Saudi Arabia as women continued to protest against de facto ban on driving.

With more than 40,000 political prisoners in detention and democracy silenced by threats of intimidation and arrests, 2013 was one of the worst years for human rights in Saudi Arabia, according to activists. In addition, women faced major oppression. While women will now be allowed to vote in 2015, Saudi females are still not allowed to drive, despite the fact there is no express law making it illegal. In protest this October, women in Saudi Arabia defied the de facto ban on driving by getting behind the wheel in a brave display of civil disobedience, as part of their Women2Drive campaign. The move prompted threats of punishment by the government and resulted in the detention of 14 women. 

13. South Sudan declared a humanitarian crisis with bloody massacres, 100,000 refugees, discovery of mass graves and violent attacks on U.N peacekeepers.

Post-independence, South Sudan was stricken with internal conflict in 2013 resulting in extrajudicial killings and numerous human rights atrocities. While Sudan’s north is home to mainly Arabic-speaking Muslims, South Sudan has no dominant culture. Instead, it is home to some 200 ethnic groups, each with its own beliefs and language. In a recent spate of ethnically motivated violence between the two largest ethnic groups, the Dinkas and Nuers, security forces shot and killed more than 200 people in the capital Juba. Almost 100,000 people have been displaced as a result of the violence. In reponse, the Security Council doubled UN peacekeeping troops to bolster its mission to protect civilians. The United Nations compound was raided earlier this year killing Indian peacekeepers. This week alone, the UN discovered 75 bodies in mass graves, evidence of ethnic killings taking place.

14. French military intervention in Mali led to catastrophic escalation of retaliatory ethnic violence fueled by poverty and famine.

The security situation in Mali made headlines in 2013 following French intervention, which arguably exacerbated conditions in the wartorn country. The ongoing armed conflict led to appalling human rights violations fraught with a lack of government accountability. In June, UN investigation revealed countless cases of extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances of civilians carried out by both Tuareg rebels and the army. Soldiers were accused of torturing Tuaregs while French-led forces attempted to oust Islamist militants. The precarious situation was further aggravated by pervasive food insecurity and extreme poverty throughout Africa’s Sahel region, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

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