Posts Tagged ‘authoritarianism’

New book: The vitality of human rights in turbulent times

September 14, 2021

“If attention is directed towards the dynamism of social movements and human rights activism around the world, a different set of views of the cathedral emerges says Gráinne de Búrca on 9 September 2021 about her book “Reframing Human Rights in a Turbulent Era“.

Cover for 

Reframing Human Rights in a Turbulent Era

In the book, she examines a number of human rights campaigns around the world and their degree of success as well as their limitations. “I argue that even in a very turbulent and difficult era when human rights are under challenge from all sides, human rights approaches not only retain vitality and urgency for activists, but have also delivered substantive results over time. I suggest that if attention is directed away from a predominant focus on a handful of prominent Global North NGOs, and towards the dynamism of social movements and human rights activism around the world, a fuller set of views of the cathedral—of the landscape of human rights—emerges. The book advances an experimentalist theory of the effectiveness of human rights law and advocacy which is interactive (involving the engagement of social movements, civil society actors with international norms, networks and institutions), iterative (entailing ongoing action) and long-term (pursuing of social and fundamental changes that are rarely rapidly achieved).

Yet there is little reason for complacency or sanguinity. These are highly challenging times for human rights, and for human rights defenders, activists and advocates everywhere. The tide of illiberalism continues to surge around the world, and liberal democracy is in an increasingly unhealthy state. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated existing inequalities, corporate power continues to grow and to elude governmental control, while powerful new alliances of religious and political actors have been moving not only to repress the rights of disfavored communities and constituencies, but also to try to reshape understandings of human rights in highly conservative, exclusionary and illiberal directions. Repression of civil society, and of freedom of assembly, expression and protest continues apace, with the number of killings of environmental and other activists growing each year.

At the same time, long-standing critiques of human rights from the progressive left have become popular and mainstream, with influential books in recent years deriding the weaknesses, failures and dysfunctions of human rights, and their complicity with colonialism and neoliberalism. Many of these critiques have been powerful and important, and several have prompted reflection and proposals for reform on the part of human rights practitioners and scholars

But several of the most prominent critiques go beyond a call for rethinking or reform. They argue that the age of human rights is over, that its endtimes are here, that human rights law and the human rights movement are ill-suited to address the injustices of our times, that the failure of human rights approaches to seek or bring about structural change or economic justice highlights their deeply neoliberal character or companionship, and that human rights advocates should perhaps no longer seek to preserve human rights, but should make way instead for more radical movements.

In my book, I argue that some of the more damning critiques are exaggerated and partial. Like the proverbial view of the cathedral, several of the sharpest criticisms focus only or mainly on one particular dimension of the human rights system, and tend to caricature and reduce a complex, plural and vibrant set of movements to a single, monolithic and dysfunctional one. At the same time that the most pessimistic of the critics are writing obituaries for human rights, multiple constituencies around the world are mobilizing and using the language and tools of human rights in pursuit of social, environment, economic and other forms of justice. From #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Climate Justice and Indigenous movements to reproductive rights marches in Poland, Argentina, and Ireland, to protest movements in Belarus, Myanmar, Nigeria and Chile, the appeal of human rights at least for those seeking justice (even if not for academic critics) seems as potent as ever.

None of this is to suggest that human rights advocates should not constantly scrutinize and reevaluate their premises, institutions and strategies. On the contrary, hard-hitting critiques of human rights for failing to tackle structural injustices and economic inequality have helped to galvanize change and a reorientation of priorities and approaches on the part of various relevant actors and institutions. Human rights activists and movements should exercise vigilance to ensure that they serve and are led by the interests of those whose rights are at stake, that they do not obstruct other progressive movements and tactics, and that their approaches are fit for the daunting and profoundly transformative challenges of these pandemic times, including accelerated climate change, digitalization, ever-increasing inequality and illiberalism. With attention to these risks and dangers, the diverse and heterogeneous array of actors that make up the international human rights community have an indispensable role to play, in a turbulent era, within the broader framework of progressive social, economic, environmental and cultural movements.

https://www.openglobalrights.org/grainne-de-burca/

Positioning China as THE threat, overlooks the bigger issues within democracies

August 7, 2021

Zack Beauchamp in VOX of 28 July 2021 makes a strong but perhaps controversial plea that “In the fight for democracy’s future, Indian and American politics is more important than anything China is doing“:

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi shaking hands while standing in front of US and Indian flags.
Donald Trump and Narendra Modi.

One of the emerging tenets of the Biden presidency is that the United States and China are locked in ideological conflict over the fate of democracy.

In March, during his first press conference as president, he declared that “this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.” In April, during his first address to a joint session of Congress, he labeled this struggle “the central challenge of the age” — and that China’s Xi Jinping is “deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.”

More recently, in last week’s CNN town hall, he warned that Xi “truly believes that the 21st century will be determined by oligarchs, [that] democracies cannot function in the 21st century. The argument is, because things are moving so rapidly, so, so rapidly that you can’t pull together a nation that is divided to get a consensus on acting quickly.”

Inasmuch as there is a Biden doctrine, the notion that the US needs to protect democracy from China’s authoritarian model is at the center of it. “Biden’s administration [is] framing the contest as a confrontation of values, with America and its democratic allies standing against the model of authoritarian repression that China seeks to impose on the rest of the world,” Yaroslav Trofimov writes in the Wall Street Journal.

Biden’s thinking captures an important insight: that the struggle over democracy’s fate will be one of the defining conflicts of the 21st century. But his analysis is crucially flawed in one respect: China is not an especially important reason why democracy is currently under threat — and centering it is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous.

In countries where democracy is at real risk of collapse or even outright defeated — places like India, Brazil, Hungary, Israel, and, yes, the United States — the real drivers of democratic collapse are domestic. Far-right parties are taking advantage of ethno-religious divides and public distrust in the political establishment to win electorally — and then twist the rules to entrench their own hold on power. Leaders of these factions, like former US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aid and abet each other’s anti-democratic politics.

More traditional authoritarian states, even powerful ones like China or Russia, have thus far played at best marginal roles in this struggle.

“Much of the recent global democratic backsliding has little to do with China,” Thomas Carothers and Frances Brown, two leading experts on democracy, write in a recent Foreign Affairs essay. “An overriding focus on countering China and Russia risks crowding out policies to address the many other factors fueling democracy’s global decline.”

This misdiagnosis has real policy stakes. Leaning into competition with China could lead the US to excuse anti-democratic behavior by important partners, like Modi or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, in a manner reminiscent of US relations with anti-communist dictators during the Cold War. Moreover, too much emphasis on competition with China could distract from the place where Biden has the most power to affect democracy’s fate — the home front, an area in which voting rights advocates increasingly see him as indefensibly complacent.

There are real problems associated with China’s rise. Its increasing military belligerence, predatory economic practices, and horrific human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang are all very serious concerns. But the fact that China is the source of many real issues doesn’t mean it’s the source of democratic erosion worldwide — and positioning it as such will do little to advance the democratic cause.

Democracies are rotting from within, not without

In his public rhetoric, Biden often argues that the US needs to prove that democracy “works” — that it can “get something done,” as he said last week — in order to outcompete the Chinese model.

While he hasn’t spelled out the nature of this competition all that precisely, the concern seems to center on Chinese policy success: that its rapid economic growth and authoritarian ability to make swift policy changes will inspire political copycats unless democracies prove that they can also deliver real benefits for their citizens.

“I believe we are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world,” the president wrote in a March letter outlining his national security strategy. “There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward. And there are those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting all the challenges of our changing world.”

But at this point, the fear of Chinese political competition is mostly hypothetical. While the Chinese government and state media frequently tout the superiority of its political model to American-style democracy, there’s little evidence that these efforts are all that influential globally — and certainly not in the countries where democracy is most at risk.

A look back at the Soviet Union, the last major challenge to the hegemony of liberal democracy, is telling. ln ideological terms, there’s no comparison: Soviet communism was a far more powerful model than Chinese authoritarian state capitalism is today.

CHINA-BEIJING-XI JINPING-JULY 1 MEDAL-AWARD CEREMONY (CN)
Xi Jinping.

Marxist ideals inspired revolutionary Communist movements and governments around the globe, successfully toppling Western-backed governments in countries ranging from Cuba to Vietnam to China itself. By contrast, there are vanishingly few foreign governments or even political parties today openly vowing to emulate modern China. While the Soviets had the Iron Curtain in Europe, modern China’s most notable client state is North Korea — perhaps the most isolated and mistrusted government on the planet.

In the countries that observers worry most about — established democratic states experiencing “backsliding” toward authoritarianism — Chinese influence is minimal at best.

In backsliding democracies, authoritarian-inclined leaders win and hold power through the electoral system for domestic reasons. Corruption scandals in India and Hungary, violent crime in the Philippines, a racist backlash against America’s first Black president: These are some of the key factors in the rise of authoritarian populists, and they weren’t created or even significantly promoted by China.

Elected authoritarians still bill themselves as defenders of democracy while in power — even after they start undermining the electoral system with tactics like extreme gerrymandering and takeovers of state election agencies. Their political appeal isn’t grounded in an overt rejection of democracy in favor of a Chinese model, but rather a claim to be taking democracy back from corrupt elites in the name of the “true” people, typically defined in ethno-nationalist terms.

The ideology driving modern democratic decline is vastly different from the sort that China promotes at home and through official state media. It represents a home-grown challenge inside the democratic world, rather than an externally stoked, Cold War-style threat.

That’s not to say China does nothing to undermine democracy outside its borders. It has, for example, exported surveillance technology and provided training in “cybersecurity” for foreign officials that amount to teaching them tools for controlling public opinion — underscoring its role as a global pioneer in using technology to repress dissent.

Yet even in this area, China’s influence can easily be overstated. Backsliding countries typically do not ban websites outright or arrest online dissidents in the way China does. Instead, they rely on spreading misinformation and other more subtle uses of state power. When they do use more traditional authoritarian tools, they often don’t need China’s help in doing so — as shown by recent reporting on Israel’s NSO Group, a company with close links to the Israeli state that sold spy software to India and Hungary (whose governments allegedly used it to surveil journalists and opposition figures).

In his recent book The Rise of Digital Repression, Carnegie Endowment scholar Steven Feldstein attempts to systematically document the use of digital tools and tactics for undermining democracy around the world. He found that while such practices were indeed becoming more widespread, this is largely due to domestic factors in authoritarian and backsliding countries rather than Chinese influence.

“China really wasn’t pushing this technology any more so than other countries were pushing advanced technology or censorship technologies,” he told me in an interview earlier this year. “What I saw — when I spoke on the ground to intelligence officials, government officials, and others — was that there were many other factors at play that were much more determinative in terms of whether they would choose to purchase a surveillance system or use it than just the fact that China was trying to market it.”

The problem with blaming China for democracy’s crisis

Biden and his team recognize that many of the challenges to democracy have domestic roots. But in casting the rise of anti-democratic populism as part of a grander ideological struggle against an authoritarian Chinese model, they conflate two distinct phenomena — and risk making some significant policy errors.

Again, an analogy to the Cold War is helpful here. One of the most grievous errors of America’s containment policy was its repeated willingness to align itself with anti-communist dictators. The perceived need to stop the expansion of Soviet influence consistently trumped America’s commitment to democracy — with horrific consequences for the people of Iran, Argentina, Indonesia, and Bangladesh (to name just a handful of examples from a very long list).

The more China is treated like the new Soviet Union — the principal ideological threat to democracy whose influence must be curtailed — the more likely the US is to repeat that mistake.

Take India, for example. In the past six months, Biden has courted Modi’s government as a potential counterweight to China. “There are few relationships in the world that are more vital than one between the U.S. and India. We are the world’s two leading democracies,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a July 28 press conference in New Delhi.

Yet this is an Indian government that has assailed the rights of its Muslim citizens, strong-armed US social media companies into removing critical posts, and arrested a leading protest figure. Earlier this year, V-Dem — a research group behind the leading academic metric of democracy — announced that India under Modi was an “electoral autocracy,” rather than a true democracy. It’s easy to see how an emphasis on China could lead to these problems getting swept under the rug.

“There has long been a bipartisan consensus in Washington that India is a critical ally in its attempt to check Chinese influence in Asia,” the Indian intellectual Pankaj Mishra wrote in a June Bloomberg column. “In overlooking the Modi government’s excesses, Biden probably counts on support from a US foreign policy establishment invested more in realpolitik than human rights.”

If you take the notion that democracy’s crisis is emerging from within seriously, then it follows that very best thing that Biden could do for democracy’s global future has nothing to do with China or even foreign policy. It’s arresting creeping authoritarianism at home.

Black Voters Matter Protest
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) are arrested during a protest to support voting rights outside of Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021.

Biden has acknowledged this at times, writing in his March letter that his global strategy “begins with the revitalization of our most fundamental advantage: our democracy.” And yet that urgency hasn’t translated into action — legislation necessary to safeguard American democracy from the GOP’s increasingly anti-democratic politics appears stalled out. Biden, for his part, has refused to publicly endorse more aggressive action to break the logjam — like abolishing the filibuster for voting rights bills.

The New York Times recently reported that “in private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression’” — an implausible claim that reflects an administration that, according to activists, has “largely accepted the Republican restrictions as baked in and is now dedicating more of its effort to juicing Democratic turnout.”

Shoring up American democracy after the recent attacks it has suffered should be the top priority of any US government concerned with democracy’s global fate. But for all of Biden’s lofty language about out-competing China and winning the future for democracy, there’s a striking lack of urgency when it comes to the perhaps the most important backsliding country — his own.

In this sense, China has very little influence over the future of democracy globally. The key battles are happening not in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait, but in the legislatures of New Delhi and Washington. If there really is to be a grand struggle for democracy’s survival in the 21st century, it needs to start there.

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22590777/biden-china-democracy-voting-india-doctrine

Covid-19 a gift for authoritarians and dictators?

April 14, 2020

…..However, even in this emergency, it is necessary to maintain a very high level of attention to what is happening to democracy in this historical phase. The fight against the pandemic cannot be used as a pretext for a global attack on human rights and democracy, as is unfortunately happening in several parts of the world. We are not ‘diverting attention’. Quite the opposite. While we are doing everything we can to stop the contagion and start thinking about how to get out of the pandemic socially and economically, we also need to assess the risks for democracy and human rights at a global scale. It is essential to take care ‘now’ also of democracy and rights, because ‘later’ there is a real risk of regression, and without them our future can only be darker.

Three issues emerge among others:

First, we are witnessing the progressive “suspension” of democratic guarantees: while some measures restricting individual freedom or privacy can be justified and understood for health reasons, especially if they are temporary, others are unacceptable and very dangerous. The literal cancellation of democracy implemented by Orban can only be met by a vehement European reaction…. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/07/good-example-of-authoritarian-abuse-of-covid-19-emergency-hungary/%5D

Second, many countries, on the pretext of Covid-19, are quietly taking advantage of the lack of world public opinion reaction to restrict the space and quality of democracy and eliminate opponents and human rights defenders.….

Finally, refugees in camps, detainees in every country in the world, homeless people, who have the right to be protected and safeguarded as far as possible against the epidemic, must not be forgotten in the emergency. In this context, Europe cannot waive its leading role in the protection of human rights.

We therefore welcome the joint proposal presented last Wednesday, 25 March, by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and the European Commission to the European Council to adopt a decision on the “EU Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024“. This includes, inter alia, strengthening the EU’s leadership in promoting and protecting human rights and democracy around the world, and identifying priorities for action, maximising the EU’s role on the world stage by expanding the “human rights toolbox”.  [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/03/27/new-eu-action-plan-for-human-rights-and-democracy-2020-2024/]

An important move was the proposal that issues relating to the EU’s human rights policy in the world should no longer be subject to unanimity but to qualified majority voting, in order to avoid vetoes and denials by countries now in dangerous drift.

—–

https://euobserver.com/opinion/148007

Are Human Rights Defenders making a comeback? Kenneth Roth thinks so!

January 19, 2019

Kenneth Roth – the executive director of Human Rights Watch – published on 17 January 2019 a long post in Foreign Policy which summarizes his introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2018. [for last year’s report, see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/01/19/human-rights-watch-and-kenneth-roth-take-a-stand-against-trumps-dictator-friendly-policies/]. “With larger powers in retreat”, he says, “small countries and civil society groups have stepped up—and they have won some significant victories”. Here some large extracts:

A participant holds a banner with photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in front of the presidential palace during a demonstration on Dec. 21, 2018.

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