UN official decries human-rights 'backlash' around the world over the past decade

A top United Nations official is decrying what he calls a backlash against human rights on every front this past decade across the globe.

Andrew Gilmour, the outgoing assistant secretary-general for human rights, said the regression of the past 10 years hasn’t equaled the advances that began in the late 1970s.

“The progress of human rights is certainly not a linear progression, and we have seen that,” Gilmour told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. “There was definite progression from the late ’70s until the early years of this century. And we’ve now seen very much the countertendency of the last few years.”

Gilmour said human rights were worse during the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, “but there wasn’t a pushback as there is now.”

He pointed to the fact that in the past eight years or so, many countries have adopted laws designed to restrict the funding and activities of nongovernmental organizations, especially human rights NGOs.

In this June 14, 2019, photo provided by the United Nations, Andrew Gilmour, assistant secretary-general for human rights, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in Sudan and South Sudan at U.N. headquarters.  (Evan Schneider/United Nations via AP)

In this June 14, 2019, photo provided by the United Nations, Andrew Gilmour, assistant secretary-general for human rights, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in Sudan and South Sudan at U.N. headquarters.  (Evan Schneider/United Nations via AP)

He called the counterattack against progressive human rights — usually led by regions with strongmen: nationalist authoritarian populist leaders — serious, widespread and regrettable.

He pointed to “populist authoritarian nationalists” in North America, South America, Europe and Asia, who he said are taking aim at the most vulnerable groups of society, including Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, Roma, and Mexican immigrants, as well as gays and women. He cited leaders who justify torture, the arrests and killing of journalists, the brutal repressions of demonstrations and “a whole closing of civil society space.”

“I never thought that we would start hearing the terms ‘concentration camps’ again,” the Briton who previously worked in politics and journalism said. “And yet, in two countries of the world there’s a real question.”

He said the U.S. is “aggressively pushing” back against women’s reproductive rights both at home and abroad. The result, he said, is that countries fearful of losing U.S. aid are cutting back their work on women’s rights.

His words come amid recent developments where the U.S. took the lead in the future of human rights globally.

Two American diplomats this month called out 69 nations that criminalize same-sex relationships — some with the penalty of death — and urged their leaders to expanded protections for the LGBTQ community.

In a special meeting sponsored by the U.S. Mission to the United NationsRichard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, and American Amb. Kelly Craft to the United Nations joined other diplomats and human rights activists to bring attention to criminalizing gay people by dozens of U.N. member states.

“Individual men and women around the world have faced — and continue to face — punishment and even death, specifically because of their sexual orientation,” Craft said. “This is a wrong we should seek to right, and it is a wrong I am personally committed to helping right.”

Gilmour also alleged that powerful U.N. member states stop human rights officials from speaking in the Security Council, while China and some other members “go to extraordinary lengths to prevent human rights defenders (from) entering the (U.N.) building even, let alone participate in the meetings.”

China has been accused of putting up to one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in labor camps in the northwest of the country for "re-education."

This month, a United Nations whistleblower accused the organization's human rights office in Switzerland of continuing to provide the Chinese government with the names of activists critical of Beijing.

Emma Reilly, a U.N. employee who first alleged the practice in 2013, said in an Oct. 21 letter to senior U.S. diplomats and members of Congress, “The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) apparently continues to provide China with advance information on whether named human rights defenders plan to attend meetings" in Geneva.

In this Nov. 3, 2017, photo provided by the United Nations, Andrew Gilmour, center, assistant secretary-general for human rights, meets with Peul religious leaders from Mopti to discuss human rights issues and the security situation in the region in Mali.  (Harandane Dicko/United Nations via AP)

In this Nov. 3, 2017, photo provided by the United Nations, Andrew Gilmour, center, assistant secretary-general for human rights, meets with Peul religious leaders from Mopti to discuss human rights issues and the security situation in the region in Mali.  (Harandane Dicko/United Nations via AP)

Gilmour is leaving the United Nations on Tuesday after a 30-year career that has included posts in hot spots such as Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and West Africa. Before taking up his current post in 2016, he served for four years as director of political, peacekeeping, humanitarian and human rights affairs in former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office.

Anne Bayefsky, director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust, questioned Gilmour’s record, however, referencing a book review he wrote in 1991.

"Before he came to occupy one of the highest offices in the U.N. human rights system, Gilmour wrote about the 'enormous power of the Israeli lobby (the effects of which are not, of course, confined to Congress).'  Then when Gilmour came to occupy the office, he went to special lengths to demonize the Jewish state. Even very recently, in November of this year, Gilmour used his platform in the General Assembly to issue a blood libel, accusing Israel of deliberately and wantonly targeting and killing innocent Palestinian children.  In short, his human rights record is stained by the use of his U.N. credentials to demonize the Jewish state and its people — modern antisemitism,” she told Fox News by email Monday evening.

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Gilmour said he is counting on younger generations to take up the mantle of human rights and fight for other causes aimed at improving the world.

“What gives me hope as we start a new decade is that there will be a surge in youth activism that will help people to get courage, and to stand up for what they believe in,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.