How to respond to the populist threat facing human rights
There is little debate that the human rights movement is experiencing unprecedented challenges. Here Philip Alston addresses how the movement needs to respond in order to survive. Firstly, he notes the importance of maintaining perspective, reminding us that the defence of human rights has never been easy. He also argues that we must recognise that this is a long-term effort and will not disappear after Trump leaves office and that, crucially, the movement needs to develop introspection and openness in order to adapt. He then sets out the five key issues that he believes the movement must address in the coming years: the populist threat to democracy; the role of civil society; inequality and exclusion; the undermining of international law and the fragility of international institutions. Finally, Alston suggests a number of strategies that human rights organisations need to adopt in order to respond to this new reality. He ends by saying all this must be done with a sense of great urgency. The time to act is now.
The human rights movement, as we know it, is no longer.
The challenges that the human rights movement now faces are fundamentally different from much of what has gone before. This does not mean, “the endtimes of human rights”.22. Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013). But it does mean that human rights proponents need to urgently rethink many of their assumptions, re-evaluate their strategies, and broaden their outreach, while not giving up on the basic principles.
These challenges are seen nowhere clearer than in the election of Donald Trump who has consistently advocated measures that would abrogate civil liberties for American citizens and non-citizens alike. Almost every senior appointment he has made has been a person from the far right of the political spectrum with a total lack of expertise for the relevant portfolio. And while the finer details of President Trump’s human rights policies remain to be worked out, there is an essential antipathy and even hostility to the subject. Beyond Trump, an increasingly diverse array of governments have all expressed a desire to pushback against key pillars of the international human rights regime. And while there have always been coalitions of would-be wreckers, in the past they have been met with at least some pushback from the United States of America (US) and other leading Western and Latin American governments. The prospect of effective pushback in the future is now evaporating before our eyes.
To respond to this, we need to remember three key points. First, we need to maintain perspective, despite the magnitude of the challenges. Defending human rights has never been a consensus project and has almost always been the product of struggle. Second, this is the start of a long-term effort; it won’t be over in four years. And finally, the human rights movement needs to develop a spirit of introspection and openness. Historically, it has not responded well to criticism.
Looking forward, there are a great many issues that will demand our attention in the years ahead, but five will be key. The first is the populist threat to democracy. Much of the problem is linked to post-9/11 era security concerns, which has translated into an actual or constructed fear and hatred of foreigners or minorities. These concerns have been exploited by governments of many different stripes to justify huge trade-offs, for example that security can only be achieved by restricting freedom of movement, privacy, non-discrimination norms, or even personal integrity guarantees.
The second major issue is the role of civil society and how, rather than “shrinking civil space” the reality is that the space has already closed in a great many countries. In my capacity as United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights I have seen this first hand in my country visits to Mauritania and to China, while other countries are excellent students in this domain. Egypt recently passed a law limiting the activity of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to social and development work, and banning all NGOs from cooperating in any way with any international body without governmental approval.
The third issue is the linkage between inequality and exclusion. Populism is driven in part by fear and resentment. To the extent that economic policies are thus critical, it is noteworthy that mainstream human rights advocacy addresses economic and social rights issues in a tokenistic manner at best, and the issue of inequality almost not at all.33. For a report on the relationship between extreme poverty and extreme inequality, see United Nations, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, UN Doc. A/HRC/29/31 (26 May 2015), available from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session29/Documents/A_HRC_29_31_en.doc. Similarly, the focus of most human rights advocacy is on marginal and oppressed individuals and minority groups. However, the majority in society feel that they have no stake in this kind of human rights movement, and that human rights groups really are just working for “asylum seekers”, “felons”, and “terrorists”. A renewed focus on social rights and on diminishing inequality must be part of a new human rights agenda. Taking into account the concerns, indeed the human rights, of those who feel badly done by as a result of what we loosely call globalisation-driven economic change is key to ensuring the movement’s success.
The fourth issue is the undermining of the international rule of law, specifically, the systematic undermining of the rules governing the international use of force by Western countries. The US and its ever-supportive, never-questioning allies such as the United Kingdom and Australia and their assiduous efforts to rationalise targeted killings and other dubious acts are now reaping the rewards that they so richly deserve. These countries are no longer in a position to turn around and say that some of the tactics used by other countries are in violation of international rules. There has also been a shocking breakdown in respect for the principles of international humanitarian law. Systematic targeted attacks on medical facilities, on operations by Médecins Sans Frontières and other humanitarian groups are commonplace and barely remarked upon. In a 2016 opinion poll undertaken by the International Committee of the Red Cross, a mere 30 per cent of American respondents considered it to be unacceptable to torture a captured enemy combatant “to obtain important military information”. In the same poll, taken in 1999, the figure had been 65 per cent. In Nigeria, 70 per cent supported such torture and in Israel 50 per cent did.44. “People on War: Perspectives from 16 Countries,” International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 2016, accessed May 21, 2017, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/people-on-war.
The fifth and final issue concerns the fragility of international institutions. The International Criminal Court is under sustained attack with various African states announcing their planned withdrawals. And the announcement by the Office of the Prosecutor that she is actively investigating the activities of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other forces in Afghanistan and related countries will hardly endear the court to the Trump Administration. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Council has been operating in a way that is surprisingly balanced in the last few years. However, the new populism is certain to change this dynamic and China and Russia have both made it clear that they stand ready to introduce or to re-introduce major “reforms” of the Council, a prospect which is hardly grounds for cheer. Similarly, the United Kingdom and many other states have waning affection for the European Court of Human Rights, while Russia and Turkey are virtually unresponsive members. Across the Atlantic, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights announced, in mid-2016, that it was going to have to lay off 40 per cent of its staff, a fate that was narrowly headed off at the very last moment by new contributions. But there is no certainty that this rescue operation will be sustainable in the future and it is noteworthy that the US has traditionally played an outsized role in funding the Commission’s work. And finally in institutional terms, the slashing of developmental assistance budgets, which is an ongoing process, is likely to be accelerated in the years ahead threatening these institutions even further.
So, what sort of strategies does the human rights community need to start considering in response to the fundamentally new circumstances that we are now confronting?
We cannot wait, we need to start acting; we need to do whatever we can to strengthen respect for international human rights. We need to commit to the principles in our own lives, in our own areas. We are going to need to operate in a much more creative fashion both internationally and locally. There is going to be a complex relationship between these two levels but there are always places where we can make a difference. These are extraordinarily dangerous times, unprecedentedly so in my lifetime. Even during most of the Cold War there was a degree of certainty but today we have lost much of that and almost anything seems possible. The response is really up to us.