LONDON - The global economic downturn has aggravated human rights violations and distracted attention from abuses, Amnesty International said on Thursday.
The world faced a grave danger that rising poverty and desperate economic and social conditions could lead to political instability and mass violence, the rights group's secretary-general, Irene Khan, wrote in its annual report.
As governments struggled to resuscitate their economies, human rights were being relegated to the back seat, she said, calling for a new global deal on human rights ... to defuse the human rights time bomb.
This new deal was about governments living up to their obligations on human rights, rather than creating new treaties, she told Reuters in an interview.
We are sitting on a powder keg of inequality, injustice and insecurity, and it is about to explode, she wrote in the report on The state of the world's human rights.
The worst downturn in decades has plunged large parts of the world into recession, slashing industrial output and trade and throwing many people out of work.
Protests against rising food prices and economic hardships last year were met with tough responses in many countries, and protesters were killed in Tunisia and Cameroon, Khan said.
Xenophobia was on the rise, she said, citing attacks on African immigrants in South Africa a year ago that killed at least 56 people.
World leaders were concentrating on attempts to revive the global economy but neglecting conflicts that spawned widespread human rights abuses, she said, citing Gaza, Sudan's Darfur region, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers had been laid off as export-driven economies slowed down, leaving more disillusioned, angry, young men idle in their home villages and an easy prey to extremist politics and violence, she said.
One bright spot in the human rights picture was a change in the U.S. position on the war on terror, she told Reuters.
Soon after taking office in January, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the closure of the Guantanamo prison camp for terrorism suspects.
Noting that nearly one billion people suffered from hunger or malnutrition, Khan said food shortages had been aggravated by discrimination and political manipulation of food distribution.
In Zimbabwe, where five million people needed food aid by the end of 2008, the government used food as a weapon against its political opponents, she said, while in North Korea, the authorities deliberately restricted food aid to oppress people.
Wealthy countries were resorting to ever harsher methods to keep out migrants, she said. Some European Union states, such as Spain, had signed agreements with African countries to return migrants, or stop them leaving in the first place.
Countries such as Mauritania see these agreements as a license to arbitrarily arrest, detain in sub-standard conditions and deport without any legal remedy large numbers of foreigners on its territory ..., she said.