Amnesty International: Powerful nations failing to stop rights abuses

Security Council permanent members should lose veto power in cases of genocide, Amnesty International says

Shameful milestones in human rights abuses were reached in 2014 as tens of thousands of civilians were killed amid armed conflicts from Syria to Ukraine and the world's wealthiest countries did little to halt the violence, Amnesty International reported Wednesday.

The number of refugees from the world's battle zones topped 50 million last year, the greatest human displacement since World War II, the London-based rights group reported. It accused Western nations of an "abhorrent" response to the plight of those driven out of their countries, noting that of the 4 million Syrian refugees only 150,000 have been taken in by European Union countries.

As thousands took to rickety boats to escape the horrors of war in their Middle Eastern and African homelands, at least 3,400 lost their lives in Mediterranean Sea crossings in 2014, the report noted. It appealed to European states to do more to help desperate asylum-seekers.

The United States also came in for harsh criticism in the annual report on the state of human rights in the world. Amnesty lauded the Obama administration's disclosure of CIA torture of terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks but faulted the U.S. government for failing to provide "accountability and remedy for the crimes under international law."

The report also cited the police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., as a case spotlighting racial tensions and gun violence in the United States.

Amnesty reserved its harshest criticism for the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council for abuse of their veto power to block action that could alleviate civilian suffering in Syria, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Israel and Ukraine. Russia and China have cast four vetoes since 2011 to derail international intervention in Syria, where 210,000 people -- mostly civilians -- have been killed since the conflict began nearly four years ago, the report said.

Security Council veto-wielding countries, which also include the United States, Britain and France, have consistently used that authority to "promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians," Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty said in releasing the report.

In its 424-page chronicle, Amnesty International called on the permanent members to renounce their veto power in circumstances where genocide or mass atrocities have been reported. While there is an initiative afoot in the General Assembly to restrict the use of vetoes on proposed actions to protect civilians, there seemed virtually no chance of it gaining unanimous support or of the five big powers voluntarily giving up their trump cards.

Shetty called 2014 a shameful nadir in the international community's response to the high levels of violence and innocent deaths.

"We must hope that, looking backward to 2014 in the years to come, what we lived through will be seen as an ultimate low point from which we rose up and created a better future," Shetty stated.

But the report was as grim in its forecast for 2015 as it was in recounting last year's abuses.

Anna Neistat, Amnesty International's director of research, warned that the mounting power of nonstate extremist groups such as Islamic State, Boko Haram and Shabab will imperil hundreds of thousands more civilians engulfed in their despotic attacks and territorial seizures.

As the scope of their attacks widens, "more civilians will be forced to live under their quasi-state control, subject to abuse, persecution and discrimination," she wrote.

In an accompanying photo chronology of last year's most disturbing developments, the group recounted the worldwide toll on life and liberty:

January -- Thousands of pro-European protesters in western Ukraine cities were beaten by police and targeted with laws prohibiting free speech and assembly, turning the demonstrations violent and setting Ukraine's course for the armed conflict that persists today.

February -- Russia, as it hosted the Winter Olympic Games, jailed dissidents and political opponents and muzzled the last of its independent media.

March -- The Nigerian military summarily executed 640 recaptured militants who had been freed by a Boko Haram attack on the prison where they were held.

April -- Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from a state-run boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria, the vast majority of them still missing.

May -- Following a military coup in Thailand, hundreds of protesters were arbitrarily arrested and harsh restrictions on free speech and assembly were invoked under martial law.

June -- Dozens of peaceful protesters were arrested and abused by police in Brazil as the country prepared to host the soccer World Cup.

July -- Scores of men, women and children from ethnic minorities in Iraq were kidnapped by Islamic State militants. Many of the abducted Yazidi women and girls were raped, forcibly married or handed over to extremist group's fighters.

August -- Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed African American, was shot to death by a white Missouri police officer, triggering mass demonstrations across the United States alleging police brutality and racial profiling.

September -- In Mexico, 43 teaching students were abducted in Guerrero state by authorities believed to be working in collusion with organized crime networks. The remains of one student were found in December but the rest are still missing.

October -- The top U.N. counter-terrorism expert issued a report calling mass electronic surveillance a violation of individuals' right to privacy as guaranteed by international treaties.

November -- The U.N. refugee agency warned of a $58-million funding shortfall in its budget to assist refugees and internally displaced people fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq.

December -- The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a document detailing how the Central Intelligence Agency resorted to torture, including “waterboarding" and mock execution, during interrogation of post-9/11 terror suspects in secret detention programs.

Referring to its list as just beginning to "scratch the surface" of the world's wrongs, Amnesty International's report on the state of human rights in 160 countries urged the international community not to succumb to a belief that "nothing can be done."

"This is wrong. It is essential to confront violations against civilians, and to bring to justice those responsible," the report concluded.

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