Header image for news printout

The global backlash against human rights

Edited text of a lecture by Andrew Gilmour,
United Nations Assistant Secretary-General
for Human Rights

University of California, Berkeley and McGeorge School of Law, Sacramento,
12 and 13 March 2018

Today, I would like to start with some historical background on Human Rights, briefly describing how we got to where we are today.

Second, to give some explanation of why we got a backlash against human rights.

Third, to look at how, today, the world looks in a state of Human Rights backlash.

Fourth, to look at how the backlash can manifest itself.

And fifth, and last, to suggest some ways to try to resist and reverse the backlash.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   This magnificent document was agreed in 1948, in the shadow of war and genocide, but also of the economic depression of the 30s.  Thus, it was designed to cover the entire spectrum of human rights: civil and political, but also economic, social and cultural.  The enthusiasm that greeted it fairly rapidly dissipated in light of the Cold War, with the two camps prioritizing rights in very different ways: the Western powers stressed individuals political rights; while the Soviet bloc (and later, also the recently-decolonized countries) emphasizing collective economic ones.

In the mid-1970s, a change could be discerned.  The US Congress - many of whose members feared that the Vietnam war, as well as the propping-up of right-wing dictators, were seriously damaging perceptions of America - started to focus more on human rights, including by passing the Foreign Assistance Act which required the State Department to provide reports of human rights violations committed in other countries.  This trend was capitalized on by President Carter and his administration.  As someone who was a student member of Amnesty International at the end of the 70s, I well remember the prisoners of conscience assigned to us: a Soviet dissident consigned to a psychiatric ward in the Siberian gulag; and a Jehovah’s Witness imprisoned by the Greek colonels for being a conscientious objector.  But within a decade, many of these regimes had collapsed - Latin American and other right-wing dictatorships, as well as the USSR and its satellites.   A flowering of human rights took place in many parts of the world over the next two decades or so; proxy wars were brought to an end in Central American, Southern Africa and South-East Asia; and the search for justice for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity became a growth industry. Starting in the mid-eighties in Argentina, up to 40 truth and reconciliation commissions were set up (most notably in South Africa), international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and finally the International Criminal Court. 

September 11, 2001 changed the situation. Human rights received a set-back as a number of countries decided that fighting terrorism was the key security challenge.  This was reasonable enough, but in the process, many of them committed appalling violations of human rights in the name of counter-terrorism.  Though it was a few years later - hard to pick a precise date - that this reversal in the progress of rights became an actual backlash against them.  

Now maybe “backlash” isn’t exactly the right word.  Some of you may have read Susan Falludi’ early 90s classic: Backlash: the Undeclared War against American women.  She was referring to a reaction in the 80s provoked by the clear progress of feminism in the 70s and which sought to reverse that progress.  Some of my colleagues balk at the word backlash.  They concede that the global situation of human rights is at the moment pretty dire, but suggest there has been an actual backlash only in Europe and North America.  Elsewhere, they point to progress for instance in Latin America, and say there has been little change in other places such as China or the Arab world.  

On my part, I do think that part of what we are seeing is a backlash.  Both regarding LGBTI issues and also women’s sexual and reproductive rights.   But also with rights of immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities.  And some have said “enough” and have sought to turn the clock back to some mythical idyllic era when rights and freedoms were supposed to apply to a very limited group of people.

But our job at UN Human Rights is to prevent abuses, protect rights, promote values and to protest - or call out - the violators.  Whether what we are seeing is an actual backlash or merely a reversal of progress or even just a continuation of bad practices is in some ways beside the point.  We have our work to do, and perhaps it is better left to the academic community to study the nature of the phenomenon.

So why the backlash - or the reversal?  Why has progress stopped?  I have not seen a clear exposition of these trends, but for me they are multi-causal.  I have mentioned 9/11 and the counter-terrorist response that was carried out in many parts of the world.  Crushing terrorism was the clear priority - human rights abuses were seen as an inevitable part of that struggle.

But those abuses also fueled more terrorism.  After all, the Iraq war (the invasion and occupation of a country where there was very limited Islamist terrorism before the invasion) led to the creation first of all of Al Qaida in Iraq and later to the so-called Islamic State. ISIL in turn, played a part in the Syrian war, and carried out outrages in Europe and elsewhere.  This at the same time as there was mass migration (part of which derived from the Syrian war) that shook Europeans, who found themselves under an “external threat” for the first time since the Cold War. This then combined with the financial crisis of 2008 and austerity measures, led to lower-paid workers seeing migrants as a threat to their jobs and benefits.

But the Human Rights backlash was not created only by bad things such as war and recession. Like the reaction to feminist advances noted by Faludi, there were also positive factors that led to backlash.  Advances in women’s rights and sexual rights are among these factors.  So was the welcoming to Germany by Angela Merkel of a million refugees in 2015.  Another element was the Responsibility to Protect invoked by Western powers to stop a massacre in Benghazi, but which was then thought (by key powers including Russia and South Africa) to have been just a smokescreen for the real agenda which was regime change and the removal of Ghadaffi. 

That move increased the determination of various non-Western countries to ensure R2P should be neutered.  Similarly, advances in women’s rights and gay rights strengthened the resolve of misogynists and homophobes, while some people beyond the west saw those issues as examples of Western values being imposed on them from outside. 

In short, all of these phenomena were used by populists like Steve Bannon and like-minded Europeans to try to persuade their publics that there was a toxic connection between economic hardship, migrants and terrorism.   All of which provoked a backlash in the west against various sets of individual rights and the hunt for scapegoats, which often ended up being refugees and migrants (and job-seekers) from Muslim countries. 

So, this is one aspect of how the world in backlash against rights manifests itself.   In its reaction to the “refugee crisis”, this has certainly not been Europe’s finest hour - and the jettisoning of its tolerant values and generosity has of course been noted by the world, who see it as Western hypocrisy - that European governments should tell off other countries about their human rights transgressions, while clamping down harshly themselves.  Both in practice - but also in rhetoric.  The Austrian Foreign Minister earlier this year suggested asylum seekers should be “concentrated” (presumably in camps); the most senior politicians in Hungary and Poland have decried the “mixing” of races, and Poland is turning to a religious agenda that sets back the clock on several rights.  In the UK, Prime Minister May said that if human rights gets in the way of security policies, then the British government should jettison human rights laws while the British tabloids have called judges “the enemies of the people” and described asylum-seekers as “cock-roaches”.   A particular egregious situation relates to the assistance provided by European countries to the Libyan Coast Guard, and the handing-over of detained asylum-seekers to Libyan authorities even though there is evidence of systematic torture and appalling ill-treatment of those rendered migrants in Libyan detention facilities.  

In the US, there has a been a dramatic change of policy and rhetoric on human rights.  Torture is openly talked of as a good practice, even as something to be encouraged, along with police violence against suspects.   Deportations of migrants are being carried out with unnecessary cruelty, transgenders in the military have been vilified, mass incarceration (2.4 million Americans beyond bars - an astronomical figure), on which until recently there seemed to have been a bipartisan consensus that the numbers should come down, continues unabated.   Finally, it is worth pointing out that a high proportion of rogue regimes and brutal dictators have borrowed the phrase “fake news” whenever they are called out on violations. 

In the Middle East, there have been mass killings and mass starvation in Syria and Yemen.  Both Turkey and Egypt have taken a turn for the worse on a wide range of liberties - not least in the imprisonment of journalists in both.  Last year, we saw the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day war, a half century of systematic and sustained denial of almost every right mentioned in the UDHR for millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories.    A few weeks ago, the Israeli Minister of Justice revealingly declared that Israelis “will not bow down our head to a system of individual rights based on universal values” - implying instead that Jewish and exclusionary ones would be reinforced still further. 

At the United Nations, we witness the impact of the rise of China and the growing assertiveness of Russia frequently attacking the UN Human Rights Office though a variety of methods. But the apparent confidence of those two countries rarely seems matched by a real confidence that would not feel quite so threatened by free press, rights defenders and NGOs speaking out, and any talk of a universal human rights agenda.  

These are just some examples of what the world looks like in a climate of human rights backlash.  How does the backlash manifest itself?

Today, in many parts of the world, it has become extremely difficult - and often extremely dangerous - to stand-up for the rights of oneself or of others.   In many countries - Russia, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Ethiopia, Hungary, India - laws preventing the proper functioning or financing of human rights NGOs have been pushed through parliaments by governments who feel threatened by such voices.  

A related phenomenon is the increase in the number of reprisals carried out against human rights defenders - including for merely having cooperated with the UN.  This worrying trend was the subject of a report of the Secretary-General that I presented to the Human Rights Council last September, saying one should see these defenders who suffer intimidation and reprisals as canaries in the coal-mine, bravely singing until they are silenced by the toxic backlash against rights and dignity, as a dark warning to us all.  

At the UN, we see the backlash in various forms - as Governments devise new means to cut the Human Rights Office’s budget, reduce our effectiveness, protest our activities, and try to prevent us from speaking at meetings, and seek to block the entry of Human Rights activists to UN meetings. 

We see a backlash against women’s rights, and also LGBTI rights, although the record there is mixed with progress in North and South America, Western Europe and a few other places, but regression in other parts of the world.

We see a cruel scapegoating of minorities: Central Americans falsely accused in the US of being more likely to be criminals than regular citizens; Muslims under great pressure in Europe and the US, and the Rohingya being victimized to the extent of disenfranchisement, killings, mass rape and expulsion.   Islamophobia is so strong that in some places traditional homophobes have started speaking better of LGBTI groups, as a way of trying to show that Muslims are the greatest threat to tolerance. In other words, they have discovered that since their dislike of Muslins is even greater than their dislike of gays, they are now to pose as defenders of gay rights from the primary threat which “comes from Muslims”.

Meanwhile, we continue to see many governments pursuing counter-terrorist campaigns in such a brutal and bovine way that they in fact end up creating even more terrorists than there were before.  A recent UNDP report neatly showed how the principal drivers of violent extremism in Africa are often the harsh actions of governments themselves.  

Then we see the growth of populist and majoritarian movements.  Majoritarianism is the claim that the nation’s political identity is determined by its religious or political majority.  It takes John Stuart Mill and de Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority” to an extreme degree.  The rights of minorities are put aside, treated as “tiered” or as a courtesy (at best, and not as equal to majority rights).  Majoritarians manipulate cultural animosities and have noted that whipping up the perceived grievances of the majority can be a powerful tool of political mobilization.  Examples where this has been the case include the United States, Turkey, Israel, India, Hungary and Poland.

In the US, it’s the plight of white males that has been played-up, as if they are the victims.  In Israel itself (let alone the occupied territories), there are greater restrictions on the Arab minority.  In India, the Muslim population appears increasingly afraid of a government that, for the first time since Independence, does not have a single Muslim MP in the governing party.

Perhaps the most egregious case of majoritarianism is Myanmar.  Decades of ever-tightening discrimination of the Rohingya Muslim minority culminated last August in a fearsome textbook case of ethnic cleansing. I have just returned from Cox’s Bazar on the Bangladesh border, now the site of the world’s largest refugee camp, with 700,000 Rohingya now there, and with the campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar security forces continuing, albeit at a much lower rate.  The main weapon now appears to be forced starvation - depriving those Rohingya who did not flee last August and September of every means of survival (preventing UN aid agencies distributing food to them, killing their livestock, dispossessing them of their fields, burning their markets, forbidding them to leave their villages or even houses), thereby compelling them to leave Myanmar. There are legitimate fears on the part of many minorities in the region that if the Myanmar security forces and government - having previously disenfranchised the Rohingya then stripped them of citizenship - get away with brutally expelling the bulk of the Rohingya population from Myanmar territory, while posing as the defender of the majority Buddhist faith - then other majoritarian governments will draw the lesson that such a policy pays. Thus we may see copycat actions.

Another way I think we can say the backlash manifests itself, is the way some traditional democracies have started to cozy up to dictators - the argument being, as former US Secretary of State Tillerson appeared to put it, that “values” (such as democracy and human rights) do not count in the same way as “interests” (trade and security cooperation). Thus criticism of, for instance, the Egyptian government, is less pronounced than it was, despite the extreme nature of the repression there. 

There is also what appears to be a new Cold War in some respects - where human rights plays a major role in the rhetoric of the opposing sides.  As a former US Assistant Secretary of State, Tom Malinowski, has put it, some use human rights only as a club to hit governments they disagree with, while allowing those they are allied with to commit violations with impunity.  

In the Security Council, western countries such as the US, UK and France have been very critical of the Assad regime in Syria for the barbarous nature of its attacks on civilians, yet appear to other Council members to be the protectors of the Gulf Coalition’s actions in Yemen, where the flabbergasting figure of 22 million civilians are now in need of humanitarian assistance largely as a result of those actions, 8 million are in danger of famine and 1 million are victims of cholera.   Similarly, earlier this year, the US Government loudly proclaimed the rights of Iranians to protest for a better life without getting killed, but are silent when it comes to Palestinian protestors doing the same thing.  

These double standards when it comes to human rights serve as a boon to those governments who would actually like to silence all consideration of human rights, as it enables them to say that those who do proclaim the value of rights (at least when it comes to countries on the other side of the divide) are so selective in their approach that it proves their hypocrisy in raising rights at all. 

The last trend I would like to refer to when it comes to how the backlash manifests itself is the discourse around human rights.   China for instance rejects our right to even mention human rights violations in a given country as running counter to the UN Charter and its prohibition against intervention in domestic matters.  Our reading of the Charter is different - that when the signatories in 1945 used the word “intervene” in article 2.7, they certainly did not have in mind a statement from the future UN Human Rights office about minority rights or press freedom.

What they meant by intervention was military invasion or pushing a naval presence into disputed waters.  In an updated context, intervention would also mean using cyber warfare, including disinformation to alter the results of elections.  Human rights advocates are also accused of attempting to overthrow regimes - either in collusion with terrorists or via other means, including being tools of Western imperialists.  We also hear how human rights involves the imposition of “alien” Western values on traditional societies who do not want them.   In the US, the accusation against human rights defenders often goes in the opposite direction - how dare foreigners from third world or European countries with “inferior” records themselves criticize America?  Pointing out racial or economic inequalities in the US is seen as socialism, envy, and uncalled-for UN interference.

Perhaps less direct, but no less insidious in its impact, is another form of criticism of human rights.  This holds that human rights may not be bad in themselves, but rather they are a luxury.  The important thing is to end conflict, impose security and achieve development.  Only then can we turn towards rights.   For us, this is classic cart before horse stuff.   We are convinced that it is impossible to achieve either sustainable peace or sustainable development without having human rights as a basis.  After all, human rights lies at the heart of almost every single internal conflict anywhere in the world today.  Denial or repression of rights of some sort is always the grievance at the heart of alienation and subsequently violence. So if it is at the root of the problem, then it needs to be part of the solution too.  

The last part of this talk is to suggest some ways to resist the backlash.

First of all, more needs to be done to defend the defenders, by which I mean those human rights defenders on the front line, who put their careers, livelihoods and sometimes lives on the line to defend their rights, other people’s rights, our rights.  There are many ways of showing solidarity with them - writing about them; celebrating their achievements and courage; contacting the press, politicians and diplomats when they are in trouble to draw attention to their predicament. 

Speaking out helps.  There are many things to speak out about, and many ways to do it.   Some Governments like to claim they do not care what the UN says about them, or what NGOs say about them.  This is bravado.  They do care. One of the consolations of working for the UN agency that is often the most unpopular guy on the block, precisely because we do speak out about violations, is that when those same governments come in to complain furiously about our reports or statements, they are showing to what extent they do mind, that they do care, that they do feel some shame, and that our critiques have indeed got under their skin.  Otherwise, they would not be in front of me hopping mad about our usually very measured, and always well-founded commentaries on their actions or inactions. 

The economic power of consumers cannot be underestimated.  Boycotts and public protests are embarrassing for those companies - either private or state-owned - who are playing a role in enabling human rights violations.   Why should tourists who go to destinations where governments are engaged in brutal or unsavory actions not be made aware of what those governments are doing - especially when sometimes those same governments justify their repression on the grounds that they need to “protect the safety of tourists”?  

There are a variety of non-state routes that can be pursued in this regard. Including press investigations into business supply chains, and charities tackling modern slavery.  What happened with the Thai prawn industry is a good example: after an international media investigation, the shaming and exposure led to arrests and changes in conditions.

Funding.  Human rights are not free, and those working for them need funds to do their work.  Unfortunately, of the three pillars of the UN, human rights only gets some 3% of the resources, and even that is challenged by some powerful governments who seem to believe it is too much.  And this is why the UN Human Rights Office relies on voluntary contributions from supportive Member States for a large chunk of our revenue.   NGOs - both international ones like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, and smaller national or local ones - are in crying need for additional resources if they are to achieve their goals, especially in instances where governments are devising new ways to stop them receiving such funding. 

There are also a wide variety of actions that citizens, students and others can take both to demonstrate solidarity and also to protest.   The German people who in 2015 met Syrian refugees at the train stations sent a powerful message, as did the Women’s Marches.   Even more resonant was that it happened in January 2017, when the infamous ban on travelers from several Muslim countries came into effect without warning and thousands of travelers were caught up in it, and thousands of Americans spontaneously flocked to airports to provide assistance, food, solidarity and pro bono legal advice.   

Another good example of citizens mobilization is the North Carolina Stop Torture Now initiative.    Over a decade ago, a mother - as she identified herself - noticed new goings-on at a rural North Carolina airport, which she correctly surmised was being used by a front company of the CIA to send suspects for rendition and torture to countries like Morocco.  After months of protests, petition, campaigns for legislation to set up an official investigation, whipping up negative publicity in the neighbourhood, and a citizens truth-seeking commission, she and her group succeeded in getting the flights stopped.  There was no meaningful support or accountability from government leaders, but this citizens’ initiative worked.  As one of the mothers who were responsible for it explained, I would like to think that if my boys were kidnapped, renditioned and tortured, there would be another mom out there at the other end, trying to stop injustice that started in her neighbourhood.  

What is clearly needed is a better understanding, not just among coastal elites but others too, of how populists have been so successful in whipping up hatred and creating a climate whereby abusing the rights of others is not just acceptable but applauded.  Comprehending and empathizing with the real fears at the basis of this, would certainly enable supporters of rights to better resist the rise of the populist tendencies. 

Now is actually a good time for resistance, as long as one does not despair.  As the Yale historian who last year wrote the incredibly relevant short book “On Tyranny”, Timothy Snyder, put it as a slogan, “Read, Resist, Rebuild”.   Look at some book titles people are now writing about: Together We Rise (on the Women’s March); How Democracies Die; The Road to Unfreedom; Trumpocracy; Can it Happen Here - Authoritarianism in America?

Black Lives Matter (police brutality); Me Too (harassment); Enough or Never Again (gun control) - these are all movements that have greatly expanded in significance precisely at a time when the climate for rights is threatened.  And there is nothing counter-intuitive about that. If its understandable and also welcome.

We must use all means at our disposal to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - 70 years old this year - to celebrate the importance and glories of that document, as well as to show how its vision has recently become gravely imperiled.  

We must use education, arts, social media and every other tool.  Black Beauty had a major impact on how animals were treated in 19th Century Britain; Uncle Tom’s Cabin clearly helped the slavery abolitionist movement in the US; the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia allowed people to start sympathizing with victims of AIDS in a way they had not done before.   These contributions in the arts were significant, and there are hundreds more examples.

I think it is important that the human rights movement does a better job in showing that human rights are for everybody.  And while it is absolutely essential that we all continue to push for prisoners’ rights, gay rights, migrants’ rights; disability rights - at the same time, people who consider themselves “ordinary” (in that they are not prisoners, gay, migrant or disabled) need to be helped to understand that a backlash against rights affects everyone.

How we frame our arguments is also important.  Naming and shaming has to play a role in our work, but it is not the only one.  Constructive engagement through technical cooperation and quiet diplomacy also has its role.  Last year, in New York, we organised a meeting during the General Assembly on non-coercive investigation methods.  We had a former interrogator from Guantanamo, as well as other practitioners from Norway and elsewhere all showing how abusive interrogation methods often fail to work, whereas more humane ones result in far more effective intelligence gathering.  One can understand why: people undergoing torture will tend to say anything - regardless of whether it is true or not - in order to stop the unspeakable pain and humiliation. This was a good example of showing how the human rights agenda can in fact work hand in hand with the security agenda to the benefit of both.

Lastly, the backlash needs to be confronted with improved technology.  After all, many of those at the forefront of new computer technologies have convictions in favor of rights and we need to do more to mobilize them.  Some repressive governments are working on new forms of internet searches of their citizens, and using information about what sites individuals are visiting and then putting them under advanced surveillance.  Other governments are successfully propagating major disinformation both at home and abroad to prop-up support for themselves and to create further hatred and mistrust.  It is clear that both the United States and a number of European countries have fallen victim of this - but they have been extremely slow to wake up to this fundamental threat to their values.  I hope we can persuade the technology wizards of our time to do more to try to ensure that human rights defenders are technologically ahead of some of the repressive regimes working so hard to undermine the rights of their citizens. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid, recently announced that he had  decided not to stand for a second term in office, because that to do so he would need to bend his knee and silence his voice when it comes to describing the realities of the world.  This is what he said last week: “Today oppression is fashionable again, the security state is back, and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world.  Shame is also in retreat.  Xenophobes and racists in Europe are casting off any sense of embarrassment..... Have we all gone completely mad?”

Today, I have laid out what I believe is one of the two greatest threats of our time (the other being climate change): namely, the backlash against human rights and the rise of populist leaders who invariably blame the ills of society on a vulnerable minority - and then often issue threats against the press, the judiciary and NGOs.  The measures I suggested hardly seem commensurate with the scale of the challenge.  But if far larger numbers start to try to influence policy and to increase awareness of what’s going on (to counter the phenomenal disinformation of some of what is in the media and social media), it would definitely provide a break from these trends.  

I am a historian by training, but I never subscribed to the Whig view of history - that society ineluctably progresses in a positive direction.  After three decades of real progress in the advance of rights, freedoms and dignity, the pendulum is clearly going in the other direction.  And I do not know when it will swing again in the direction we want and need. 

I am aware I have not painted an uplifting picture.  But I am not disheartened and the last thing I want to do is to be disheartening to others.   After all, those who do not like what I have been depicting - which I assume is almost everyone in this room - need to show the same level of determination and guile as those who are leading the backlash. 

It is a tremendous pleasure to be in the state that has styled itself as the leader of the resistance to this trend.  We all have a tremendous challenge - and I hope we can work more closely together to meet it.