The Year in Human Rights: Best and Worst of 2015

Elections offered a way out of dismal misrule for several countries in 2015, but the year was otherwise dominated by war, terrorism, repression, and bigotry.

Elections offered a way out of dismal misrule for several countries in 2015, but the year was otherwise dominated by war, terrorism, repression, and bigotry.

The Best 

1. Victory for voters in South America

The year featured two major electoral upsets in South America, with opposition wins driven by heavy voter turnout and public frustration with long-ruling incumbent parties.

In Venezuela, the opposition coalition Democratic Unity won a two-thirds supermajority in the National Assembly, marking the first time in 16 years that the ruling socialist movement founded by Hugo Chávez has not controlled all branches of government. The newly empowered opposition hoped to reverse Venezuela’s economic collapse and a pattern of growing corruption and political repression.

In Argentina, in what many called a “transformative election,” Mauricio Macri’s surprise victory over frontrunner Daniel Scioli signaled a new political era in the country. Scioli was the hand-picked candidate of outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who had succeeded her husband in 2007, meaning her faction had held the presidency since 2003. Macri pledged to end Fernández’s combative style of politics and revive Argentina’s economy.

2.  Democratic progress in Southern Asia

Myanmar is currently forming what could be its first democratically elected government since the 1960s. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won an unprecedented majority in both houses of parliament in November’s historic elections, soundly defeating the military-backed ruling party. Though the election results have raised hopes for further progress toward a democratic society, the military retains crucial powers under the constitution, and it remains unclear whether the NLD will stand up for Myanmar’s persecuted ethnic and religious minorities.

In Sri Lanka, voters ousted authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa in January, then rejected his bid to return to power as prime minister in August parliamentary elections. The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has taken steps to heal ethnic divisions, restore democratic checks and balances, and repair Sri Lanka’s relations with the international community.


3.  Nigeria’s first-ever peaceful rotation of power


In what was hailed by many observers as one of the most important opposition wins of 2015, former military leader Muhammadu Buhari (pictured right) beat President Goodluck Jonathan by more than 2.5 million votes in March. Buhari is the first presidential candidate to unseat an incumbent in Nigeria’s entire political history, and Jonathan won praise for conceding defeat and allowing a peaceful rotation of power. The new president promised to root out Nigeria’s rampant corruption and destroy the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, but both problems will likely take years to fully address. 


The Worst

1.  Disaster in Syria, international refugee crisis


Already one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time, the war in Syria raged on throughout 2015, adding to the death toll, the growing list of war crimes, and the number of refugees seeking safety abroad. The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people, and at least 12.8 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance within the country. According to the UN refugee agency, the number of people displaced by war around the world during 2015 was at the highest level ever recorded. The war in Syria is the single largest contributor to the increase, with an estimated 4.4 million Syrians displaced; one in five refugees worldwide is Syrian.

2.  Expansion of ‘Islamic State’


The terrorist organization known as the Islamic State (IS) continued to expand its territory and influence during the year. Although it lost control over some parts of Syria and Iraq, it gained ground in others. Perhaps more importantly, it solidified outposts in countries including Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Meanwhile, terrorist attacks that were organized or inspired by IS struck directly at civilian targets abroad, killing hundreds of people in France, Tunisia, the United States, and elsewhere.

3.  Rise of the demagogic right


From U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s offensive remarks about Muslims to widespread anti-refugee statements in Europe, the year featured an upsurge in the number and prominence of populist politicians preaching xenophobia in democratic countries. Under pressure from such figures, many elected officials responded to public concerns about migrants and terrorism by resisting plans to accept refugees and imposing harsh new border controls. In France, the far-right National Front lost the second round of regional elections in December, but it won more votes than ever before, and its xenophobic rhetoric transformed the mainstream political discussion, leading other parties to move further to the right.

4. Iran’s post–nuclear deal crackdown

Many hoped that President Hassan Rouhani’s success in securing the international nuclear deal and a reduction in sanctions on Iran would empower him to ease domestic restrictions on human rights and civil liberties. Instead, hard-liners in the judiciary and security services escalated their crackdown on dissent and perceived foreign influences. This show of force was most apparent in the increased pace of executions. According to UN investigators, the number of executions in 2015 could top 1,000. Iran executes more individuals per capita than any other country in the world, and many are sentenced to death for crimes other than murder, including drug-related offenses and even Facebook posts. 

5.  Saudi Arabia’s aggression, at home and abroad

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war this year has had devastating effects on the population, with air strikes ravaging civilian areas and a blockade limiting access to food, fuel, and medical supplies. Although a truce is now on the table, roughly 6,000 people, almost half of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict, and Yemen now faces what UN officials are calling a humanitarian catastrophe. Meanwhile, international jihadist groups have taken advantage of the chaos to seize territory in the southeast.

Inside Saudi Arabia, death sentences and executions are on the rise, with at least 150 people put to death as of last month, and more than 50 others reportedly at risk of imminent execution, according to Amnesty International. Those currently on death row include prominent Shiite activists and poet Ashraf Fayadh, who was sentenced for alleged blasphemy.

6. Assault on dissent in China

China has ramped up political repression under President Xi Jinping, and 2015 was no exception. In July, the authorities detained more than 200 human rights lawyers, adding to the already alarming numbers of prisoners of conscience in the country. Pu Zhiqiang (above), one of China's most prominent lawyers, is awaiting a verdict on trumped-up charges of “picking quarrels” and “inciting ethnic hatred” through seven microblog posts. Throughout the year, the Communist Party regime introduced new rules and proposed legislation that could affect everything from foreign nonprofit organizations to the media and technology companies.