Populist wave, 'crisis overload' weaken global voices for human rights

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Rohingya refugees who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before walked after they received permission from the Bangladesh Army to continue on to refugee camps in Bangladesh last October.
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Not that long ago, Western governments took human rights seriously enough to send their soldiers into Kosovo to protect civilians from the threat of ethnic cleansing. But attitudes have changed a lot since then; last year the Myanmar Army expelled 700,000 Rohingya from their homes and there has been not so much as a UN Security Council resolution condemning it. Human rights are under attack by populists around the world who make scapegoats out of minorities or foreigners, and “Western powers have done a poor job of standing up to them,” says Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch. But even though ordinary citizens in a number of countries report a sense of “humanitarian crisis overload,” and traditional champions of human rights such as the United States are ignoring many abuses, courageous individual human rights defenders are still working at the local level around the world. 

Why We Wrote This

Champions of human rights are vacillating under pressure from a new generation of populist and authoritarian leaders. That could affect not only embattled minorities but, more broadly, rule of law.

It is 70 years since Eleanor Roosevelt diplomatically steered the United Nations toward adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, thus making such rights a key operating principle in world affairs.

And in the struggle to secure them since then, millions upon millions of people have won greater freedoms, better schooling, more reliable health care, and broader opportunities to be who they dreamed of being.

Yet nowadays, the top UN human rights official lamented last month, “human rights are sorely under pressure around the world – no longer a priority: a pariah."

Why We Wrote This

Champions of human rights are vacillating under pressure from a new generation of populist and authoritarian leaders. That could affect not only embattled minorities but, more broadly, rule of law.

“The legitimacy of human rights principles is attacked. The practice of human rights norms is in retreat,” added Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Governments from Myanmar to Syria, from Hungary to Egypt, and from Turkey to the Philippines are trampling on hard-won rights and “Western powers have done a poor job of standing up to them,” says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. And as strong-man populists strengthen their hold on power by weakening the rule of law that underpins human rights, they will get away with it unless traditional rights champions defend their values more vigorously, activists fear.

Indeed, in some cases it is those powers themselves who have flouted international norms. The United Nations has castigated both the US administration and European governments for the way they are turning back or imprisoning refugees and economic migrants.

Major shift over 20 years

Time was, humanitarian concerns could move armies; NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1998 to forestall a threatened bout of ethnic cleansing by the Serbian government. And they could sway justice; the International Criminal Court (ICC) was created the same year to prosecute and punish crimes against humanity that the world had not been able to prevent.

Twenty years on, the picture is very different. The Myanmar Army expelled 700,000 Rohingya from their homes last year, yet there has been no UN Security Council resolution condemning the outrage and no case brought to the ICC,  let alone any action to defend the Muslim minority. China has blocked all diplomatic initiatives.

Likewise, abuses committed by the Syrian government during its savage war against rebel forces have gone unpunished and untouched by UN condemnation, because Russia has protected President Bashar al-Assad from criticism and prosecution.

Hosam Katan/Reuters/File
Residents walk amidst debris at a site damaged by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad, in the al-Sukkari neighborhood of Aleppo May 1, 2015.

And indiscriminate attacks by Saudi-led forces battling rebels in Yemen, which have killed uncounted numbers of civilians, go equally unremarked; Saudi Arabia is a close ally of Washington’s.

Governmental inaction is matched by public indifference. A recent survey of 11,000 people in 12 countries by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, an NGO commemorating those who saved Armenians during the 1915 genocide, found that 61 percent of respondents reported “crisis overload” and being unable to keep up with the bad news. Only 36 percent thought that protecting children and 24 percent thought protecting women were pressing humanitarian priorities.

Protecting those who violate rights

Out of strategic interest, the United States has often protected allies who violated human rights. And Democratic administrations have generally proved more sensitive to human rights than Republican ones. (Emblematic moments: Jimmy Carter introduced the annual State Department report on global human rights; George W. Bush ignored the 3rd Geneva Convention in authorizing the waterboarding and other ill-treatment of detainees after 9/11.)

But Donald Trump, who pulled the United States out of the UN Human Rights Council this week, seems to attach unusually little value to human rights.

He has not yet named an assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor. After his summit with Kim Jong-un he brushed aside North Korea’s uniquely appalling human rights record as “rough” but no worse than in some other countries.

Meeting last November with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, widely believed to be the architect of an anti-drug campaign involving thousands of extra-judicial killings, President Trump said he had “a great relationship” with Mr. Duterte and did not bring up the issue.

At home, meanwhile, Trump’s policy on immigration runs counter to international law on a number of counts, notably his declaration this week that “the United States will not be a refugee holding facility” despite a US legal obligation (under the 1967 Protocol to the 1951 Refugee Convention) to give asylum to people fleeing persecution or war.

Europe behaves no better on this front. The European Union is paying 6 billion euros to Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has assumed almost dictatorial powers, to keep migrants out of Europe even if they are seeking asylum. The EU is also paying to help the Libyan coastguard to intercept and return to Libya boatloads of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.

On Wednesday, the Hungarian parliament passed a law criminalizing individuals and organizations that help refugees claim asylum. Last week the Italian government refused to let a boat full of migrants land in Italy.

Demonizing minorities

Turkey and Hungary – along with Russia, Poland, Venezuela, Egypt, India, and the Philippines – are ruled by the sort of populist, authoritarian governments that have “found a route to power by demonizing minorities and then claim to speak for the majority when they undercut checks and balances such as independent civil society and a free press,” says Mr. Roth.

Countries such as the United States and Britain, meanwhile, “have absented themselves,” he charges, “because they are preoccupied with their own populist agendas, so they lose credibility and interest in promoting human rights elsewhere in the world.”

This leaves chauvinist nationalists, populists, and authoritarians of all stripes freer to undermine human rights and the rule of law that might set limits on their power. That is “disturbing and disheartening,” says Michael Lynk, who teaches law at Western University in London, Canada.

“In a world divided by religion and ideology and wealth, the only common language that we have all bought into is human rights and international law,” he says. “When we weaken the architecture of that law by not obeying it, or weaken human rights by flouting them, we weaken the bonds that tie us together across national boundaries.”

Though the international picture seems bleak, there have been some imaginative successes. In the face of Russia’s refusal in the UN Security Council to allow any resolution critical of Syria, tiny Liechtenstein cobbled together a coalition in the General Assembly – where no nation enjoys a veto – to create an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to investigate and preserve evidence of war crimes in Syria.

A French prosecutor is gathering such evidence in Geneva, pending such time as a tribunal might be able to consider it.

And unseen by most people are the small, grassroots groups fighting to defend and extend human rights, from LGBT activists in Mongolia to anti-slavery campaigners in the Gulf states. “You don’t hear about the web of local human rights organizations around the world that are dealing with issues at their level,” says Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley. “Advances are being made in local efforts.”

In the Western world, where human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have long taken public support for granted, a number of recent elections have shown that populists can rally a lot of people around hostility to human rights for minorities.

“We have to remind people that when you let governments pick and choose who gets rights today, it may be just unpopular groups who lose them,” says Roth. “But tomorrow it could be you.”

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