Posts Tagged ‘populism’

10 December warning by Michelle Bachelet: Populist nationalism threatens UDHR

December 6, 2018

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 5, 2018.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet 

Born out of the devastation of two world wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Holocaust, the seminal document is geared toward preventing similar disasters from happening. December 10 marks the 70th anniversary of the declaration, which U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said has withstood the test of time. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/10/18/michelle-bachelet-new-un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights-gives-major-interview/]

She said its fundamental principles can be applied to meet the challenges of today, such as ensuring equal rights for LGBTI people and protecting the right to life, food and health in the face of climate change. But, she warns, many of these rights are under threat from politicians pushing a nationalistic agenda. “When leaders… speak against migrants or a sort of hate speech or xenophobic speech, you are giving license to other people not to respect people’s rights,” Bachelet said. Leaders are responsible for what they say, and must lead by example, she added, dismissing the argument sometimes made by developing countries that human rights are a Western concept.

https://www.voanews.com/a/un-populist-nationalism-threatens-human-rights-declaration/4687896.html

Human Rights in crisis? – here the last word (before the summer!)

August 1, 2018

This blog (among many other sources) has dedicated quite a few posts to the mood of crisis that has engulfed the human rights movement, especially at international level. The international human rights regime as we have known it for the last decades is indeed under pressure, from autocratic regimes, from populist leaders and – let us be honest – from quite a few ‘normal’ people. Below you find a small selection earlier blog posts on this theme of crisis. On  30 May 2018 the MEA organized in Geneva a public event “Human Rights in a Changing World”. At this 25th Anniversary event, the leaders of the 10 international NGOs on the MEA Jury and several laureates had wide ranging discussions both in private and in public. The MEA has now produced a summary for public consumption which I have published separately earlier this day [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/08/01/report-of-meas-25thanniversary-event-human-rights-in-a-changing-world-30-may-2018/ ]

July 31 July 2018, Kathryn Sikkink published an interesting piece that has some elements in common with findings of the MEA event referred to above. The title is: “Rethinking the notion of a human rights crisis”, with as summary that “The frame of constant crisis has negative implications for human rights, especially when questions of legitimacy arise. But hope—based on empirical evidence of human rights progress—should give advocates the motivation to keep working.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

There is an epidemic of pessimism surrounding human rights today. To name but a few examples, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has suggested that there has never been so much suffering since World War II, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner has claimed that there have been no marked decreases in human rights violations in the same time period, and international relations scholar Stephen Hopgood has argued that we are witnessing the “end times of human rights.”

Such a pessimistic mindset is understandable because of the worrisome situations that human rights activists face every day. The idea of peril and crisis, however, points not only to the present moment but also implies some knowledge about trends and change over time; it suggests that human rights were not challenged before, and that the situation is now worse.

I recognize that many alarming human rights situations exist in the world today, and I am particularly worried about the current situation in the United States, but I am not persuaded that the state of human rights globally is now worse than it has been before. Instead, let us consider how the frame of constant crisis itself could have negative consequences for human rights.

My recent book, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, proposes that pessimistic claims need to be submitted to rigorous examination, both historical and statistical. This debate matters because of the inadvertent effects the frame of crisis and peril may have on perceptions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of human rights activism.

Historically, human rights progress has occurred as a result of struggle, and has often been spearheaded by oppressed groups. Where it has occurred, human rights progress has not been at all inevitable, but rather contingent on continued commitment and effort. Some activists and scholars fear that if they admit there has been progress, people will grow complacent and disengaged.

A recent survey of 346 individuals currently or previously working in the field of human rights found that this work is associated with elevated levels of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. One source of this appears to be negative self-appraisals about human rights work. These findings suggest that one of the most difficult parts of being a human rights activist is the doubt about whether you are contributing to positive change. A frame of excessive crisis thus may not only contribute to the impression that the human rights movement has historically been ineffective, but it could also diminish the motivation and well-being of activists.

By their very definition, human rights are needed when things are bad. I worked at a small human rights organization, the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time that is now seen by some as the golden age of human rights activism. Yet we never felt like human rights goals were easily within our reach. How could we, when the Argentine government was disappearing thousands of its citizens; the Salvador government, with the heavy support of the US government, was massacring people; and the world had ignored the recent genocide in Cambodia?

Some of the current pessimism also suggests that human rights activists were popular at some point in the past and are now denigrated. But human rights activists have never been popular in the countries where they work. Repressive governments have a long history of attacking and vilifying human rights groups, through smear campaigns and other repressive tactics. Human rights organizations often defend the rights of unpopular minorities such as political leftists in Latin America, the Roma in Europe, and transgender people in the US.

The fact that the fight for human rights has always faced significant opposition should not discourage us. The longer history of human rights offers a positive message that can help sustain us in the context of our current struggles. In Evidence for Hope, I explore what changes have taken place over time, using the best data I can find on what many of us would agree to be good measures of diverse human rights.

Looking at this data carefully, issue by issue, we see that some situations are worsening—such as the absolute number of refugees displaced by war or economic inequality within many countries. Nevertheless, there are many more positive trends, including a decline in genocide and politicide, a shrinking number of people killed in war, decreasing use of the death penalty, and improvements in poverty, infant mortality, and life expectancy, as well as advances in gender equality, the rights of sexual minorities, and the rights of people with disabilities.

So why is it that so many people believe human rights violations in the world are getting worse rather than better? The short answer is that we think the world is worse off because we care more and know more about human rights than ever before. The media and human rights organizations have drawn our attention to an increasingly wide range of rights violations around the world. Their success in doing so sometimes inadvertently causes people to think that no human rights progress is occurring. Discouraging results are also generated because we compare our current situation not to the past but to an imagined ideal world, and thus we always fall short.

My point here is not to suggest that the situation for human rights defenders is improving in the world. I mainly want to remind readers that human rights defenders have long been on the front line, and we should be cautious in suggesting that there was a better period for human rights in the second half of the twentieth century that has now been eroded in the twenty-first century. Some of the threats—particularly those involving invasive laws about registration and funding—are indeed new and threatening, while other challenges have been almost a constant for civil society human rights organizations over time.

Nothing about how new or old these challenges are or about any trends in fundamental human rights detracts from acknowledging the frightening challenges groups and individuals face, nor do they negate the urgent need to strategize about how to respond to these challenges. Yet, what I hope is that some information about historical trends, as well as a more focused look at data, may be useful as part of an action-oriented discussion of promising tactics and how to address these challenges.

The stakes in this human rights debate are high. Anger, hope, and the knowledge that you can make a difference in the world give people the energy to keep working. Knowing more specifically how human rights groups have made a difference can teach us more about effective strategies and tactics to use in the future.

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Report of MEA’s 25thAnniversary event: Human Rights in a Changing World (30 May 2018)

August 1, 2018

And here is finally the Discussion Summary (in full) of the Martin Ennals Award 25thAnniversary event “Human Rights in a Changing World” [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/05/24/mea-at-25-high-level-anniversary-panel-looks-at-human-rights-in-crisis/].  

 Introduction

On 30 May 2018, the Martin Ennals Foundation convened a meeting of leaders of the ten organizations that make up the Martin Ennals Jury, together with some former MEA laureates, to discuss current human rights priority issues. This, the first such meeting, took place in the context of the 25thanniversary of the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders.  The document below attempts to capture the main elements discussed and draws some conclusions.

Discussion

Three issues were scheduled to serve as the agenda:  (1) influencing authoritarians, (2) countering populism, and (3) effective human rights action. We focus on the five main points raised throughout the discussion.

  1. Human rights are increasingly the target of populist and/or authoritarian leaders as they demonize “others” to build support;

Not all authoritarians are populists, and not all populists are authoritarians. The initial discussion looked at the phenomenon of populists who build support by using messages and approaches that give cause for major human rights concerns.  Populist leaders who end up trampling human rights are often those most eager to remove constraints on their own power by weakening the institutions that can challenge them: the judiciary, media, parliaments, and civil society, especially Human Rights Defenders (HRDs).

Authoritarians are increasingly willing to stand up for their approaches, using justifications such as the need for economic development, the rejection of “Western” or “liberal” models, or the protection of national identity.  This is the case for countries where the population have little say in the choice of their leaders (e.g. China); nominal say (e.g.  Russia or Venezuela); or even where the population can vote freely (e.g. Hungary or USA).

The blaming or demonization of marginalised groups is a principal tool in the authoritarians’ arsenal. These groups can include religious or ethnic minorities, or even the targeting of criminals by extrajudicial means. But currently overshadowing all is the way that irregular immigrants have become the focus especially in Europe and the US of attempts to find a scapegoat for the problems that preoccupy the wider population.

The concerns among the population that provide the breeding ground for authoritarian leaders to reject more traditional democratic politics are linked to a variety of issues in the spheres of economic insecurity and law and order, as well as cultural displacement and loss of identity.  Populists have tapped into these concerns, but rather than looking at the deeper complexities they have created resonance with simple, compelling messages that appeal to emotion more than to reason.

The manner in which populists have built support by attacking marginalised groups includes a discourse to deny them certain basic rights. Statements that in the past were seen as reminiscent of fascism and thus politically unacceptable are now part of the political dialogue and supported or at least ‘accepted’  in many countries that were considered “liberal democracies”. Regardless of who is in power, suggesting denial of basic rights to certain groups is now common currency even in many democracies.

Immigration, and in particular “uncontrolled” or “illegal” immigration, is a particular target for populist leaders.  Human rights advocates who stand up for these people’s rights are now more easily accused of working against the national interest. Disconcertingly, blaming such an identifiable “other” time and again appears a simple but effective tool. Politicians focusing on complex causes face an uphill battle. Human rights organizations trying to protect the “other” may find their messages not just ineffective, but providing arguments for populists to use against them.

The result is that human rights, and human rights activists and organizations, are seen by significant numbers of people in many countries as serving effectively to support those who threaten their livelihood, safety and cultural values. Thus, human rights, as a concept, come under attack when associated with protecting “undesirables”.

While “human rights” as a concept may be easily misunderstood, or intentionally manipulated, views tend to be more supportive once specific rights are acknowledged and advanced. This applies particularly to a broad range of economic and social rights issues that resonate with a wider cross-section of the population: corruption, land rights, labour rights, and environmental degradation.  These issues tend to be underrepresented as human rights concerns and more effort should be made to show the connections. It was stressed that young people especially are willing to work on these issues.

A recurring theme in the discussion was that while there may be support for particular rights such as LGBT or land rights, this would not usually be translated into supporting the overarching human rights architecture in general. Messaging by human rights organizations often involves conceptual messages, which have been ineffective in the past. However, the new, and more dangerous, element is rather than just being ineffective, these messages can provide arguments in the opposite direction for populists.

The conclusion that presents itself is that those working on any particular topic will have to be much more aware of the wider context in which they work. While trying to draw attention onto specific issues, it is important to remain credible in the eyes of the wider public. This means that as human rights organizations decide where and how to focus their activities, the balance of issues worked on needs to be considered as part of the perception that the organization wants to build.

For those organizations with very specific mandates, and so a limited choice of issues to focus on, it is even more important to find approaches that do not provide arguments that can be used by those working against them.

  1. Naming and shaming needs to take into account that certain approaches can reinforce populist leaders

 

“Naming and shaming” has long been one of the main tools to press for human rights.  However, given the success of the populist messages, some leaders have been able to justify human rights violations and even use criticism to make their point to supporters. This is particularly so when the criticism associated human rights with the least “desirable”.

Even though authoritarians may feel no compunction to stand behind their methods or even boast about them, they still are sensitive to their reputations. They often mobilize significant resources to thwart or stop human rights defenders, which shows that they still think arguments in favour human rights are important enough to be dangerous for them.

There is no reason to conclude that public shaming is no longer effective, but it needs to be carefully tailored to each situation. Failure to do so can play directly into the hands of the authoritarian leader who may claim the criticism as a badge of honour. Populists are sensitive to being ridiculed; humour at their expense can be powerful. In any case the planned message needs to be carefully analysed to determine how the message could be used to their benefit by those it seeks to challenge.

Sanctions against Individuals

The use of personal sanctions and restrictions on autocrats and their cohorts is increasing and is found often to have considerable impact.   However, where this can trigger counter-measures it is important for unintended consequences such as reprisals against human rights defenders to be factored into the equation.

 

  1. Public communication

There was broad agreement about the importance of moving beyond the traditional ways of communicating human rights concerns and articulating advocacy. The human rights narrative mainly resonates with those most familiar with, and supportive of, the issues.  Messages are often legalistic and technical, limiting their appeal to a wider audience. In the current fractured political dialogue, when the objective is seen as supporting an “other” a new level of hostility can result.

The most effective communications are on issues that the recipient can identify with. This makes normative and conceptual work very hard to get the wider public people excited about. They are more likely to react to messages where they see themselves as potentially affected. This is what makes the demonization of “others” so effective.  Action against migrants or minorities does not strike people as something that can happen to them. Even when talking about civil and political rights, it is still possible to see the most serious violations such as torture and enforced disappearance as something that happens to others.

It may well be easier to mobilise people around social justice issues like corruption, land rights, labour rights, and pollution. There is a general sense that economic, social, and cultural rights are not sufficiently addressed. Countering populists will need messages in language that appeal to populist followers’ values, interests and indeed emotions. Here it is important to offer constructive solutions to move the debate forwards rather than condemning what is wrong. Furthermore, there is a need to work in alliance with broader elements of civil society such as social movements, and so tap into sources of wider support. Effective use of visual and social media is indispensable.

Dialogue with autocrats

Governments are not monoliths. There are different interests and views within autocratic states that can be utilized when dealing with them. It is important to weigh the trade-offs in any such interaction; while dialogue can be opened up it needs to be able to lead to action. There are risks that autocrats could use the fact of dialogue to legitimise their actions. At the same time, they may go along but with no intent to move forward – e.g. dialogue that only involves the foreign ministry is usually a sign that little will happen. As a rule, dialogue should go hand in hand with public communication that creates pressure. The ‘diplomacy’ must have a public component.

 

  1. Non-state actors/business and human rights

Non-state actors can play powerful roles influencing the state primarily for their own benefits, and so contributing directly or indirectly to infringement of human rights. The business sector, notably multinational enterprises, is considered a clear priority in this regard. Effective action to ensure compliance is still limited by gaps in normative rules; where such enterprises may be vulnerable to reputational risk, strengthened regulation should help ensure that they are competing on a level playing field.

There is a multitude of pressure- and leverage points. One that drew particular attention is the notion that the eventual cost to companies resulting from a lack of early engagement with the local population may be exponentially higher than had they consulted at the start. Involvement at the early planning process by all sides can reduce the risk of project failure or excessive costs later on. Other leverage points include banks/financial institutions, shareholder activism, and associated business partners such as suppliers who may have reputational concerns.

Overall, the thrust of engaging with the business sector in the sphere of human rights must be to shift the emphasis from focusing on transparency to seeking accountability.

 

  1. Supporting local action for human rights

Much of the discussion looked at recent changes in the West as to how human rights are viewed, whereas the global South continues to face the challenges it always has.  Furthermore, certain changes that originated in the West such as funding restrictions on political activity, and anti-terrorism legislation have inspired new methods to restricts human rights defenders  in countries with more structural human rights problems.

Reassuringly, experience shows that even in countries with structurally problematic human rights records there are networks of committed human rights activists. While they may be small in numbers, their commitment and drive allow them to keep human rights concerns on the agenda. Many of these activists feel unsupported when facing the resources, restrictions, and wrath of their own governments. However, this commitment to human rights by an engaged minority is a clear counterweight to populism and human rights abuses more widely.

Thus, a key message arising out of the discussion is the importance of supporting local activists and networks. Supporting them is a critical function of the international human rights movement. The work for human rights defenders cannot be seen in isolation from the causes they espouse, which in turn enables international human rights organisations to connect with broader social movements.

Rules vs implementation

While there may still be a need for developing norms and standards in certain areas (as with regard to business and human rights), the overall emphasis must increasingly be on implementation and enforcement of existing rules. This requires a more comprehensive approach that moves from identifying where norms are violated, to a systematic approach to keeping pressure on governments in question until there is change. This will involve increased coordination between international actors and those working locally.

 

In conclusion

Convening the leaders of all the MEA jury organizations together with former laureates was a first. It gave a unique opportunity to discuss the state of human rights and human rights action in today’s rapidly changing and increasingly contested world. The analysis differed in nuance only, the overall findings and conclusions had a large degree of consensus. While these outcomes may not in themselves offer ground-breaking new insights, that fact of the shared orientation and commitment is remarkable and encouraging in the face of the formidable challenges in front of us.

You can see and hear the public debate led by BBC’s Lyse Doucet on the MEA website: http://www.martinennalsaward.org (viewed by hundreds of people)

MEA at 25: high-level anniversary panel looks at human rights in crisis

May 24, 2018

The soul-searching of the human rights movement continues unabated in a climate of growing hostility towards some of the basic tenets which the international human rights movement assumed were widely accepted. Now this can no longer be taken for granted as shown in action by some major players (China, Russia) and inaction(USA, EU) and by a worrying number of middle-sized states (such as Turkey, Hungary, Philippines, Venezuela) where backsliding on human rights is underpinned by populist leaders.
In this context the Martin Ennals Award for Humans Rights Defenders (MEA) is organising its 25th Anniversary event on 30 May in Geneva with a public event “Human Rights in a Changing World”The leaders of the 10 international NGOs on the MEA Jury and several laureates come together for this occasion. In the morning they meet in private session on the same topics.

Human Rights in a Changing World

30 May 2018 – 18.30-20.30 – Uni-Dufour (U-600) (a few places remain but need to register: http://www.martinennalsaward.org/human-rights/)

Panel 1 (35 Min)- The rising influence of autocratic states
Speakers:
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch
Debbie Stothard, Secretary-General, International Federation for Human Rights
Sam Zarifi, Secretary-General, International Commission of Jurists
Panel 2 (35 Min)- Populism as a threat to human rights
Speakers:
Elisa Massimino, President and CEO, Human Rights First
Gerald Staberock, Secretary-General, World Organization Against Torture
Friedhelm Weinberg, Executive Director, HURIDOCS
Julie Verhaar, Senior Director, Amnesty International
Panel 3 (35 Min)- Effective human rights action in today’s environment
Speakers:
Julia Duchrow, Head of Human Rights, Brot Für die Welt
Andrew Anderson, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders
Vincent Ploton, Director, Treaty Body Advocacy, Int’l Service for Human Rights.

This blog has devoted several posts to these developments and here is a small selection that may help prepare for the meeting:

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/04/25/has-the-human-rights-movement-failed-a-serious-critique/

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/05/18/excellent-background-piece-to-hungarys-stop-soros-mania/

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/12/04/the-new-normal-rising-attacks-on-human-rights-defenders/

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights-zeid/page/2/

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/01/19/human-rights-watch-and-kenneth-roth-take-a-stand-against-trumps-dictator-friendly-policies/

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/12/09/the-will-of-the-people-or-democracy-under-the-rule-of-law-in-europe/

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/02/13/another-one-bites-the-dust-the-future-of-the-un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights/

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/05/24/death-of-international-human-rights-regime-declared-premature-by-professor-nye/

Death of international human rights regime declared premature by professor Nye

May 24, 2018

Joseph S. Nye, a professor at Harvard, in a piece of 10 May 2018 entitled “Human rights and the fate of the liberal order“, takes issue with those who despair of the current slide of the human rights system as we know it. The piece is certainly worth reading in total:
Image courtesy Pawel Ryszawa via Wikimedia Commons.

Many experts have proclaimed the death of the post‑1945 liberal international order, including the human-rights regime set forth in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The cover of Foreign Policy recently displayed the white dove of human rights pierced by the bloody arrows of authoritarian reaction.

According to ‘realist’ international relations theorists, one cannot sustain a liberal world order when two of the three great powers—Russia and China—are anti-liberal. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa argue that the era when Western liberal democracies were the world’s top cultural and economic powers may be drawing to a close. Within the next five years, ‘the share of global income held by countries considered “not free”—such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—will surpass the share held by Western liberal democracies’.

There are several problems with this argument. For starters, it relies on a measure called purchasing power parity, which is good for some purposes, but not for comparing international influence. At current exchange rates, China’s annual GDP is $12 trillion, and Russia’s is $2.5 trillion, compared to the United States’ $20 trillion economy. But the more serious flaw is lumping countries as disparate as China and Russia together as an authoritarian axis. There is nothing today like the infamous Axis of Nazi Germany and its allies in the 1930s.

While Russia and China are both authoritarian and find it useful to caucus against the US in international bodies like the United Nations Security Council, they have very different interests. China is a rising power that is highly intertwined with the international economy, including the US. In contrast, Russia is a declining country with serious demographic and public health problems, with energy rather than finished goods accounting for two-thirds of its exports.

Declining countries are often more dangerous than rising ones. Vladimir Putin has been a clever tactician, seeking to ‘make Russia great again’ through military intervention in neighbouring countries and Syria, and by using cyber-based information warfare to disrupt—with only partial success—Western democracies. A study of Russian broadcasting in Ukraine found that it was effective only with the minority that was already Russia-oriented, though it was able to produce polarising and disruptive effects in the political system. And the revival of Cold War–style information warfare has done little to create soft power for Russia. The London-based Soft Power 30 index ranks Russia 26th. Russia has had some success cultivating allies in Eastern Europe, but it is not part of a powerful authoritarian axis such as existed in the 1930s.

China is different. It has announced its willingness to spend billions to increase its soft power. At meetings in Davos in 2017 and Hainan in 2018, Xi Jinping presented China as a defender of the existing international order, but one with Chinese rather than liberal characteristics. China does not want to overturn the current international order, but rather to reshape it to increase its gains.

It has the economic tools to do so. It rations access to its huge market for political purposes. Norway was punished after the dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Eastern Europeans were rewarded after they watered down European Union resolutions on human rights. And Singaporean and Korean companies suffered after their governments took positions that displeased China. The Chinese government’s massive Belt and Road Initiative to build trade infrastructure throughout Eurasia provides ample opportunities to use business contracts to wield political influence. And China has increasingly restricted human rights at home. As Chinese power increases, the global human-rights regime’s problems will increase.

But no one should be tempted by exaggerated projections of Chinese power. If the US maintains its alliances with democratic Japan and Australia, and continues to develop good relations with India, it will hold the high cards in Asia. In the global military balance, China lags far behind, and in terms of demography, technology, the monetary system and energy dependence, the US is better placed than China in the coming decade. In the Soft Power 30 index, China ranks 25th, while the US is third.

Moreover, no one knows what the future will bring for China. Xi has torn up Deng Xiaoping’s institutional framework for leadership succession, but how long will Xi’s authority last? In the meantime, on issues such as climate change, pandemics, terrorism and financial stability, both an authoritarian China and the US will benefit from cooperation. The good news is that some aspects of the current international order will persist; the bad news is that it may not include the liberal element of human rights.

The human-rights regime may face a tougher environment, but that is not the same as a collapse. A future US administration can work more closely with the EU and other like-minded states to build a human-rights caucus. A G10, comprising the world’s major democracies, could coordinate on values alongside the existing G20 (which includes non-democracies such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia), with its focus on economic issues.

Others can help. As Kathryn Sikkink points out in her new book, Evidence for hope, while US support has been important to human rights, the US was not always very liberal during the Cold War, and the origins of the regime in the 1940s owed much to Latin Americans and others. Moreover, transnational rights organisations have developed domestic support in numerous countries.

In short, we should be concerned about the multiple challenges to liberal democracy during the current setback to what Samuel P. Huntington called the ‘third wave’ of democratisation. But that is no reason to give up on human rights.

Excellent background piece to Hungary’s Stop-Soros mania

May 18, 2018

published a long, interesting article entitled “The Open Society Foundations — and their enemies“. It is very much linked to the anti-Soros drive earlier reported [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/05/09/urgently-seeking-professors-to-stop-the-anti-soros-bill-in-hungary/] but digs deeper and looks at the various dilemmas facing the Open Society Fund and similar donors in authoritarian/populist settings. The relocation of the Budapest office provides a timely backdrop.

George Soros founded the Open Society Foundations. Photo by: Mirko Ries / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Here some interesting quotes but the whole article is worth reading:

The risk that Open Society weighs is not the potential for its activities to create controversy, but for that controversy to prevent the foundation from being able to carry out its activities. “We don’t exist to defend ourselves. We exist to make change out there,” .. “If we only existed to protect ourselves, then that would be their victory….That is a classical philanthropic reaction — let’s not go anywhere near that, because that’s controversial. If you do that, if you allow controversy … to stop you from doing things, then an authoritarian government or a reactionary player in society … have a very easy task.” — Jordi Vaquer, Open Society Foundations’ regional director for Europe

..Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not alone in flinging those accusations — Soros is a favorite boogeyman for pro-Brexit voters in the United Kingdom, populists across Eastern Europe, and even Republicans in the United States. But in Hungary, the anti-Soros campaign has moved to the very center of political life. Orban’s party and supporters invoke Soros’ name and image to paint an apocalyptic vision of what might happen if the Hungarian-American financier, his foundation, and the NGOs they support are allowed to carry out their alleged “globalist” agenda.

Devex spoke to Gabor Gyulai, director of the Refugee Programme at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and another NGO Power of Humanity.

“In countries where millions of people are actively working in solidarity with refugees, or with LGBTI people, or with victims of domestic violence, civil society organizations have something they can build on to shape a message that will attract broader support. In a society where the vast majority believes that what you are standing up for is not a valid cause, there is much less to build on, said Gyulai, an expert on refugee issues who is also working with the United Nations to build a global network of open access courses on asylum law. The problem gets even more difficult when the state is actively working to prevent that kind of coalition from forming.”  Less than a week after Devex met with him, Gyulai’s name appeared on the list of “Soros mercenaries.”

…..

The risk that Open Society weighs is not the potential for its activities to create controversy, but for that controversy to prevent the foundation from being able to carry out its activities. “We don’t exist to defend ourselves. We exist to make change out there,” Vaquer said. “If we only existed to protect ourselves, then that would be their victory….That is a classical philanthropic reaction — let’s not go anywhere near that, because that’s controversial. If you do that, if you allow controversy … to stop you from doing things, then an authoritarian government or a reactionary player in society … have a very easy task.” — Jordi Vaquer, Open Society Foundations’ regional director for Europe

….

Zoltan Mester (left) and Vilja Arato, employees of the With the Power of Humanity Foundation. Michael Igoe/Devex

Among With the Power of Humanity’s staff, the debate over what is and is not an encroachment into party politics plays out constantly, Mester said. “Every day it’s a big fight … because especially in this time and especially in Hungary, everybody thinks that political is something bad … In Hungary if you say ‘political,’ you think about … party politicians.”…

“George Soros could have done many other things with his fortune, but that was the vision from the start — that those two were going to be the pillars of the ways in which he would then seek to define open society,” Vaquer said. “If you look at our budget 30 years later, that’s still what we are doing overwhelmingly. We’re still supporting civil society organizations and individuals. We haven’t changed that.”

The Open Society Foundations office in Budapest, Hungary. Devex/Michael Igoe

Faced with a constant barrage of accusations that they are part of George Soros’ secret plan to meddle in national politics, some of Open Society’s grantees find themselves responding to the obligatory questions that follow…..In accusing the foundation of orchestrating a global campaign to transform Europe and erode countries’ national sovereignty, OSF’s enemies ascribe much more power and reach to the organization than its employees and grantees would ever claim to have. It is tempting to do the same thing when asking if Open Society has been successful in achieving its goals. The declines in democratic freedom currently underway in many countries where Open Society operates might raise questions about whether the foundation and its benefactor have been operating with the right theory of change.

….

With the erosion of the values and norms it promotes, Open Society is not necessarily thinking differently about how the foundation measures its impact, but its leaders are coming to terms with a more realistic view of what is possible. “I think it has made us extremely aware of the limitations of what can be achieved with cross-border philanthropic activity,” Vaquer said. “It was perhaps a product of the exceptional time that was the 1990s that OSF had such a disproportionate impact on some places, in terms of being part of their political transformation, but that was probably exceptional.”

Igoe michael 1

[Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.]
….

 

 

Urgently seeking professors to stop the Anti-Soros bill in Hungary

May 9, 2018

On 9 May 2018, Hungary’s (remaining) civil society issued the Professors Solidarity Call below, signed by 77 professor until now and asking for more signatories. It concerns the so-called “Stop Soros” bill, to be voted by the Hungarian parliament very soon, which will have a devastating impact on both Hungarian civil society and the asylum seekers and refugees that are already in a dire state. That Victor Orban is behind an ‘anti-Soros bill’ is the more remarkable as he himself was the beneficiary of a Soros scholarship [in 1988 a dissident Hungarian university graduate wrote a letter to George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist, asking for help obtaining a scholarship to Oxford University. In the letter, which has recently resurfaced, the young Viktor Orban said he wanted to study the “rebirth of civil society”. He got the scholarship.– the Economist 7 April 2018].

(see also my earlier: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/02/20/250-ngos-address-letter-to-hungarian-parliament-regarding-restriction-on-the-work-of-human-rights-defenders/ and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/03/19/ahmed-h-personifies-the-real-danger-of-populist-anti-terror-measures/)

PROFESSORS’ SOLIDARITY DECLARATION AND CALL FOR ACTION IN DEFENCE OF THE HUNGARIAN HELSINKI COMMITTEE AND THE HUNGARIAN CIVIL SOCIETY

We, 77 university professors and academics from 28 countries around the world, express our solidarity with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the independent Hungarian civil society, which currently faces an imminent existential threat.

The so-called “Stop Soros” bill, to be voted by the Hungarian Parliament in mid-May 2018, will have a devastating impact on both Hungarian civil society and those vulnerable human beings that cannot count on anyone else’s support. The new legislation will allow the government to simply ban the activities of organizations assisting refugees and migrants in a fast and arbitrary process. Activities such as legal aid to asylum-seekers, reporting to the UN or the EU, holding university lectures about refugee law or recruiting volunteers will be rendered illegal, if these are performed by civil society actors who dare to criticise government practices. Practices, which are equally condemned by the EU and the international community.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) is an outstanding human rights organization, well-known and respected for its professionalism around the world, not only by civil society, but by academia, state authorities and the judiciary as well. The HHC has massively contributed to the promotion of refugee law education and legal clinics on various continents. We all personally know and highly respect their work. States should be proud of such NGOs, instead of aiming to silence them.

Strong and independent civil society organisations are as indispensable for democracy and the rule of law as strong and independent universities. If NGOs such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee are threatened, democracy is threatened. If a prestigious organization, winner of various international human rights awards, can simply be banned from providing legal aid to refugees, if a globally reputed voice of human rights can be silenced with an administrative measure in an EU member state, then further dramatic anti-democracy measures are likely to follow. There is a real risk that the Hungarian example will be increasingly copied elsewhere, and soon it may be too late to stop the domino effect.

We call on our governments to express, without delay, their vivid discontent with Hungary’s legislation aiming at annihilating independent civil society. We call on universities around the world to do the same and actively demonstrate their solidarity with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the entire threatened Hungarian civil sector. We call on the European Union to prove to the world its credibility as a guardian and global promoter of fundamental rights, and immediately take action to prevent this flagrant human rights violation from happening on its own territory.

Signatures (in alphabetical order) at the end of the document: https://www.helsinki.hu/wp-content/uploads/Professors-solidarity-call-HHC-HU-NGOs-2018.pdf

https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21739968-election-april-8th-hungarys-prime-minister-looks-unbeatable-viktor-orban-set

Has the Human Rights Movement failed? A serious critique.

April 25, 2018

The last year or so there has been a lot soul-searching within the broader human rights movement, questioning its relevance or even survival at a time of resurgent ‘anti-human rights’ attitudes in the superpowers (regression in China, USA, and Russia, with the EU vacillating between careful diplomacy and trade interest). A number of smaller countries have also taken enthusiastically to human rights bashing (just to mention Turkey, Philippines, Hungary, Venezuela and Burundi). In all these cases the leadership seems to imply that human rights are niceties that no longer have the support of the majority of their population, which could well be true due to the extent that their control over the media and relentless whipping up of populist feelings make this self-fulling.This blog has tried to monitor – at least illustrate – this phenomenon on many occasions [too many to list]. Now comes along an interesting piece written by professor Samuel Moyn of Yale university under the provocative title “How the Human Rights Movement Failed” (published on 23 April 2018 in the New York Times). The piece is a must read (in full) and I give the text below in green. Even if I disagree with some important parts, it remains a coherent and thought-provoking article (once you get over feeling offended by the idea that you are a plutocrat).

The key notion is expressed in the following quotes:

“.those who care about human rights need to take seriously the forces that lead so many people to vote in majoritarian strongmen in the first place.”

and

The truth is that the growth of international human rights politics has accompanied the very economic phenomena that have led to the rise of radical populism and nationalism today. In short, human rights activism made itself at home in a plutocratic world.

Where I most disagree with the author is that there is lot more going on in the human rights movement than the defense of civil and political rights or playing along with elites. Either he does not know it or ignores it on purpose. The thousands of human rights defenders working in their own countries are fully aware of the realities on the ground and are often prioritizing social, economic, cultural and community rights [just a cursory sample of blog posts on environmental activists will show this: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/environmental-activists/]. International and regional NGOs mostly help and protect them! Also, the author seems to underestimate the potential attraction of the human rights cause in civil society (especially victims and young people), whose mobilization is still patchy. If the human rights movement can overcome its fragmentation and use media better this potential could turn tides. Say I!.

Here the piece in full/ judge for yourselves:

The human rights movement, like the world it monitors, is in crisis: After decades of gains, nearly every country seems to be backsliding. Viktor Orban in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and other populist leaders routinely express contempt for human rights and their defenders. But from the biggest watchdogs to monitors at the United Nations, the human rights movement, like the rest of the global elite, seems to be drawing the wrong lessons from its difficulties.

Advocates have doubled down on old strategies without reckoning that their attempts to name and shame can do more to stoke anger than to change behavior. Above all, they have ignored how the grievances of newly mobilized majorities have to be addressed if there is to be an opening for better treatment of vulnerable minorities.

“The central lesson of the past year is that despite considerable headwinds, a vigorous defense of human rights can succeed,” Kenneth Roth, the longtime head of Human Rights Watch, contended recently, adding that many still “can be convinced to reject the scapegoating of unpopular minorities and leaders’ efforts to undermine basic democratic checks and balances.” 

That seems unlikely. Of course, activism can awaken people to the problems with supporting abusive governments. But if lectures about moral obligations made an enormous difference, the world would already look much better. Instead, those who care about human rights need to take seriously the forces that lead so many people to vote in majoritarian strongmen in the first place.

The truth is that the growth of international human rights politics has accompanied the very economic phenomena that have led to the rise of radical populism and nationalism today. In short, human rights activism made itself at home in a plutocratic world.

It didn’t have to be this way. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was promulgated in 1948 amid the consolidation of welfare states in Europe and North America and which formed the basis of the human rights agenda, was supposed to enshrine social protections. But in the 1970s, when activists in the United States and Western Europe began to take up the cause of “human rights” for the victims of brutal regimes, they forgot about that social citizenship. The signature group of that era, Amnesty International, focused narrowly on imprisonment and torture; similarly, Human Rights Watch rejected advocating economic and social rights.

This approach began to change after the Cold War, especially when it came to nongovernmental advocacy in post-colonial countries. But even then, human rights advocacy did not reassert the goal of economic fairness. Even as more activists have come to understand that political and civil freedom will struggle to survive in an unfair economic system, the focus has often been on subsistence.

In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, both human rights and pro-market policies reached the apogee of their prestige. In Eastern Europe, human rights activists concentrated on ousting old elites and supporting basic liberal principles even as state assets were sold off to oligarchs and inequality exploded. In Latin America, the movement focused on putting former despots behind bars. But a neoliberal program that had arisen under the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet swept the continent along with democracy, while the human rights movement did not learn enough of a new interest in distributional fairness to keep inequality from spiking.

Now the world is reaping what the period of swelling inequality that began in the 1970s through the 1990s sowed.

There have been recent signs of reorientation. The Ford Foundation, which in the 1970s provided much of the funding that made global human rights activism possible, announced in 2015 that it would start focusing on economic fairness. George Soros, a generous funder of human rights causes, has recently observed that inequality matters, too.

Some have insisted that the movement can simply take on, without much alteration of its traditional idealism and tactics, the challenge of inequality that it ignored for so long. This is doubtful.

At the most, activists distance themselves from free-market fundamentalism only by making clear how much inequality undermines human rights themselves. Minimum entitlements, like decent housing and health care, require someone to pay. Without insisting on more than donations from the rich, the traditional companionship of human rights movements with neoliberal policies will give rise to the allegation that the two are in cahoots. No one wants the human rights movement to be remembered as a casualty of a justifiable revolt against the rich.

If the movement itself should not squander the chance to reconsider how it is going to survive, the same is even truer of its audience — policymakers, politicians and the rest of the elite. They must keep human rights in perspective: Human rights depend on majority support if they are to be taken seriously. A failure to back a broader politics of fairness is doubly risky. It leaves rights groups standing for principles they cannot see through. And it leaves majorities open to persuasion by troubling forces.

It has been tempting for four decades to believe that human rights are the primary bulwark against barbarism. But an even more ambitious agenda is to provide the necessary alternative to the rising evils of our time.

—–

Samuel Moyn is the author of “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Ahmed H. personifies the real danger of populist anti-terror measures!!

March 19, 2018

During an electoral campaign dominated by anti-migrant rhetoric, a Hungarian court has upheld a shocking verdict of terrorism against a Syrian citizen (Ahmed H.) and the symbolism is lost on no one [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/02/28/un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights-in-last-council-statement-does-not-mince-words/]. On 19 March 2018, Maxim Edwards (a journalist writing on Central and Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space – currently assistant editor at OCCRP in Sarajevo) published a fascinating insight into how ill-defined terrorism laws and anti-immigrant hype (in Hungary in this case) can lead to upholding a verdict of terrorism against a Syrian refugee.

Ahmed H. in the courtroom during the second-instance trial. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International / Anna Viktória Pál.

For Hungary to achieve anything in the next four years, we must not let in a single migrant” began Viktor Orbán in a speech earlier this month. ..

For Budapest, migration means terrorism — a commonsensical link reinforced daily by pro-government media and initiatives such as the state’s Public Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism. Leaflets for the May 2015 referendum on acceptance of refugees featured maps of “no go areas” across western Europe and shocking statistics about “murder by migrant.”

And now, the government has its very own case study. Last Wednesday, a Hungarian court upheld a verdict against a Syrian citizen accused of a terrorist act carried out at the Serbian border in 2015. After already spending two and a half years behind bars, Ahmed H. has been sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and a ten year ban on entering Hungary.

 .

……

This was due to the elastic definition of terrorist acts in the Hungarian criminal code. Article 314A defines terrorism as, among other things, “coercing a government agency, state, or international body to do or not to do something”. Consequently, Ahmed’s alleged demand by megaphone that the Hungarian border police open the gates was enough to convict him of an act of terrorism.

(Ahmed was also charged with illegal entry into Hungary as part of a mass riot, an administrative violation which carries a minimum sentence of five years. He did not contest the charge that he threw objects at the police, which alone cannot constitute a terrorist threat even in the most elastic of interpretations.)

….
In a final twist to this story, Ahmed’s other relatives made it to an EU country, where they now live in safety. Ahmed H. himself, probably one of the only people in the crowd at Röszke who could legally enter Hungary, had succeeded in his errand — at the cost of over ten years of his life.

Please read the full story that contains lots of interesting detailshttp://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/03/19/trials-ahmed-h/

AI welcomes resistance to Trump’s human rights policies

January 19, 2018

Having just posted about HRW’s annual report [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/01/19/human-rights-watch-and-kenneth-roth-take-a-stand-against-trumps-dictator-friendly-policies/], I wanted to share also the assessment by AI USA on 19 January 2018: “USA: ‘resistance’ to Trump hailed after year of human rights violations”.

President Trump’s regressive policies have led to an upsurge in human rights activism © Amnesty International

Ahead of the one-year anniversary (20 January) of the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said:

“While the policies of the Trump administration presented daunting challenges over the past year, we also saw the rise of a fierce and determined movement of people across the country and around the world standing up to defend human rights.

“Starting with the throngs of people braving the January cold to fill the streets on the very first day of his presidency and continuing throughout the year, we have taken heart in the galvanising spirit of resistance that has swept the world. 

“We have marched alongside both seasoned activists standing up for women’s rights and we have welcomed those who have never actively protested before in denouncing Trump’s discriminatory Muslim ban. 

“We have placed welcome mats for refugees at the foot of Trump Tower, and filled London’s Grosvenor Square with 100 sombre Statues of Liberty standing in silent protest at the US Embassy.  

“From Sydney to Madrid, human rights defenders have made it known that the politics of hate and fear have no place in the world we wish to build for ourselves and our children.

A year of human rights violationsAmong other things in the past year, Amnesty has strongly criticised the Trump administration’s plan (reported earlier this week) to consider using nuclear weapons in response to a cyber-attack in the USA; the ending of “Temporary Protected Status” for over 250,000 people from El Salvador in the USA; the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, its insistence on pushing ahead with a revised multi-country travel ban; an executive order affecting the Mexico-USA border which allows for the forcible return of people to life-threatening situations;  the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change; the reinstatement of the “global gag rule”affecting funding for international women’s health programmes; its continued sale of military equipment to countries with poor human rights records; and the decision to continue the construction of the Dakota pipeline despite environmental and cultural concerns.