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The human rights movement needs America

Jan 29,2019 - Last updated at Jan 29,2019

NEW YORK — These are disheartening times for international human-rights advocates. Even those of us who have promoted the human rights cause for decades, and experienced many setbacks along the way, are deeply alarmed by recent developments around the world.

The latest was the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president on January 1. Before launching his election campaign, Bolsonaro, an apparent admirer of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, joked about rape, expressed his disdain for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights and made it clear that he would encourage police violence, which has long been widespread in Brazil. On his first day in office, he took significant steps to undercut protections for the country’s indigenous population and regulate non-governmental organisations.

Bolsonaro is not alone. The leaders of China, Russia, India, Turkey and the United States also are largely hostile to human rights, as are many of their counterparts elsewhere. And governments still committed to human rights, notably Germany, often face domestic political opponents fuelled by xenophobic nationalism.

Unsurprisingly, this hostility is creating many victims. Chinese human-rights lawyers and Turkish journalists languish in prison. Brazil’s police have summarily executed suspected petty criminals. And Syrian President Bashar Assad has attacked his opponents with barrel bombs and chemical weapons.

Arguably, things were even grimmer in the late 1970s, when many of the groups that now constitute the global human-rights movement were just starting. Back then, the Soviet Union still exercised control over many countries and tolerated no dissent, while China was emerging from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Anti-communist military dictatorships across much of Latin America and parts of Asia relied on death squads and disappearances, and apartheid held firm in South Africa. Even democratic India imposed a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties. The worst horrors, however, took place in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge exterminated one-quarter of the population.

Against this gloomy background, three main factors helped the human-rights movement to gain ground during the 1980s and 1990s. The most important one was American leadership. In 1975, the US Congress approved legislation, overriding President Gerald Ford’s veto, that made global promotion of human rights a goal of American foreign policy and restricted, though never eliminated, US aid to governments that committed gross human-rights abuses. Successive presidents from both parties, up to and including Barack Obama, maintained this policy.

At the same time, public awareness of human-rights issues increased sharply. Human-rights movements emerged in Soviet bloc countries, particularly after the Helsinki accords were signed in 1975, Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and investigative journalism helped to push human rights up the global agenda.

Finally, of course, seismic political developments played a role. New democracies emerged in the former Soviet bloc, military dictatorships collapsed in Latin America and Asia, and South Africa dismantled apartheid.

Unfortunately, the past two decades have been far less positive, as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US triggered a reversal of progress on human rights. The backsliding has gathered pace in recent years with the repression of the Arab Spring, humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen and increased flows of refugees and other migrants fleeing conflict and poverty. Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory in the US, and those of other human-rights opponents such as Bolsonaro, have made the situation even worse.

And yet the human-rights cause is far from lost. Despite all the recent setbacks, public awareness of and support for human rights is as high as ever.

This is why even leaders of repressive states are at least partly constrained by public opinion. Russian President Vladimir Putin may be the country’s most powerful leader since Stalin, but he knows that citizens of present-day Russia would not tolerate crimes on the scale of the purges or the gulag. And while the Chinese government has so far gotten away with great crimes against the Uighur minority, largely by hiding them from most Chinese, President Xi Jinping still craves international prestige and does not want to be seen as another Mao.

Large corporations, prompted by employee pressure, also are taking stands on rights issues. Some prominent business leaders refused to participate in an investment conference in Saudi Arabia following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. And some staff at Google, for example, have objected to their employer’s activities in China.

Ultimately, however, the US remains key. If it is again to play a leading role in promoting human rights worldwide, America must change some of its domestic practices. President George W. Bush’s administration was eager to promote rights internationally, but lacked credibility because of its treatment of terrorism suspects at its Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba and its heavy reliance on “enhanced interrogation”, or torture, there and around the world. Similarly, Trump’s biased policies against Muslims and Latino immigrants leave America unable to promote rights effectively elsewhere.

It is hard to be optimistic about human rights nowadays, and even credible efforts by the US to promote rights internationally would probably have only limited impact. Nonetheless, a renewed American commitment is the best hope for pushing other governments into action and bolstering human-rights supporters worldwide.


Aryeh Neier, president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of “The International Human Rights Movement: A History”. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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