How to Stand Up For Human Rights in the Age of Trump

Western democracies that were once reliable defenders of human rights have been consumed by a nativist backlash, leaving an open field for dictators and demagogues.

(Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)
(Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

One year ago, there seemed to be no stopping politicians around the globe who claimed to speak for “the people” but built followings by demonizing unpopular minorities, attacking human rights principles, and fueling distrust of democratic institutions. Today, a popular reaction in a broad range of countries, bolstered in some cases by political leaders with the courage to stand up for human rights, has left the fate of many of these populist agendas less certain. Where the pushback has been strong, populist advances have been limited. But where centrists have capitulated in the face of hatred and intolerance, the populists have flourished.

As this struggle has played out, many Western powers have become more inwardly oriented, leaving an increasingly fragmented world. With the United States led by a president who displays a disturbing fondness for rights-trampling strongmen, and the United Kingdom preoccupied by Brexit, two traditional if flawed defenders of human rights globally are often missing in action. Meanwhile, Germany, France, and their European Union partners have been buffeted by racist and xenophobic political forces at home and have not always been willing to pick up the slack. And democracies such as Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, and South Africa have been heard actively defending human rights only rarely.

The retreat of many governments that once championed human rights has left an open field for murderous leaders and their enablers. Mass atrocities have proliferated with near impunity in countries including Syria, Myanmar, and South Sudan. Authoritarian leaders have profited from the vacuum as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on the most severe crackdowns on dissent in a generation with little Western pushback. And Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, playing on Western fears of Iranian influence, led an Arab coalition that bombed civilians and blockaded aid in Yemen, creating an enormous humanitarian disaster.

Real issues lie behind the surge of populism in many parts of the world. Globalization, automation, and technological change have caused economic dislocation and inequality. Fear of cultural change has swept segments of the population in Western nations as the ease of transportation and communication fuels migration from war, repression, poverty, and climate change. Societal divisions have emerged between cosmopolitan elites who welcome and benefit from many of these changes and those who feel their lives have become more precarious. Demagogues have exploited the traumatic drumbeat of terrorist attacks to fuel nativism and Islamophobia. Addressing these issues is not simple, but populists tend to respond less by proposing genuine solutions than by scapegoating vulnerable minorities and disfavored segments of society.

The result has been a frontal assault on the values of inclusivity, tolerance, and respect that lie at the heart of the human rights movement. Indeed, certain populists, such as Trump with his repeated racist comments, seem to relish breaking the taboos that embody these values. Invoking their self-serving interpretation of the majority’s desires, populists seek to replace democratic rule — elected government limited by rights and the rule of law — with unfettered majoritarianism.

Responding to this challenge will mean addressing the legitimate grievances that populists exploit but also reaffirming the human rights principles that they reject. It requires trumpeting the advantages of governments that are accountable to their people rather than to their officials’ empowerment and enrichment. It requires demonstrating that all of our rights are at risk if we allow governments to select which people deserve rights and which do not. It requires reminding ordinary people that they need human rights as much as dissidents and vulnerable groups do.

The willingness of democratic leaders to take on this challenge and champion human rights has fluctuated. A year ago, as the populists seemed to have the wind at their backs, few dared. But in the past year, that has begun to change.

France provided the most prominent turning point. In other European countries — Austria and the Netherlands, for example — centrist and center-right politicians competed with populists by adopting many of their nativist positions. They hoped to preempt the populists’ appeal but ended up reinforcing the populists’ message.

Emmanuel Macron took a different approach during his presidential campaign. He openly embraced democratic principles, firmly rejecting the National Front’s efforts to foment hatred against Muslims and immigrants. His resulting victory and his party’s success in parliamentary elections showed that French voters could be persuaded to overwhelmingly reject the National Front’s divisive policies. The challenge for Macron now is to govern according to the principles he campaigned on, especially when commercial opportunities and the fight against terrorism are involved.

In the United States, Trump won the presidency with a campaign of hatred against Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, and other racial and ethnic minorities and an evident disdain for women. In reaction to his victory, the United States saw a broad reaffirmation of human rights from many quarters. A powerful response came from civic groups, journalists, lawyers, judges, many members of the public, and sometimes even elected members of Trump’s own party. Trump still took regressive steps, but the reaction limited the harm done, notably his efforts to discriminate against Muslims seeking to enter the United States, undermine Americans’ right to health care, and expel transgender people from the military.

Germany made headlines when the Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the first far-right party to enter its parliament in decades. That ascent cut into support for the ruling coalition, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and complicated her task of forming a new government. Yet beyond the economically depressed eastern parts of the country, where widespread racism and xenophobia have not been tackled since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the AfD gained the most votes in wealthy Bavaria, where Merkel’s governing partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU), had adopted far more of the AfD’s nativist positions. Merkel’s principled confrontation rather than the CSU’s calculated emulation turned out to be the more politically effective response.

Central Europe has become especially fertile ground for nativists and authoritarians, as certain leaders use fear of migration elsewhere in Europe to undermine checks and balances on their power at home. But there has been resistance, too. Large public protests and the threat of legal action by the European Union challenged Poland’s efforts to undermine judicial independence and the rule of law and impeded Hungary’s plans to close Central European University, a bastion of independent thought that stood in opposition to the model of “illiberal democracy” championed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. There is growing recognition among EU institutions and some member states that such assaults on democratic rule pose a threat to the EU itself. And given Poland and Hungary’s position as major beneficiaries of EU funding, a debate is beginning on whether that aid should be linked to upholding basic EU values.

In Latin America, the authoritarian populist President Nicolás Maduro continued to eviscerate Venezuela’s democracy and economy under the guise of standing up for the poor against those whom he brands imperialists. But as his rule became more brutal and autocratic, his corrupt and incompetent management of the economy became painfully apparent. This potentially wealthy nation was left destitute despite its vast oil reserves, with many people desperately searching for food and medicine amid raging hyperinflation. People took to the streets in large numbers to protest, and an unprecedented number of Latin American countries shed their traditional reluctance to criticize a neighbor’s repression. Maduro has managed to stay in office, largely due to the violent repression he was willing to deploy. Taking advantage of a subservient supreme court and the Constituent Assembly that he created to take over legislative powers from the opposition-controlled National Assembly, he carried out a brutal crackdown on dissent. But as the Venezuelan people continue their descent into poverty and misery, it is unclear how long they will let Maduro cling to power.

In Africa, in a variation on this theme, several abusive leaders, some with blood on their hands and fearing prosecution, invoked pan-Africanism to encourage a mass exodus of their countries from the International Criminal Court. But that effort fizzled when an outpouring of popular support for the ICC by civic groups across Africa helped persuade most African governments to continue standing behind the court. Only Burundi, whose leadership the ICC is investigating, left.

Sometimes, when more powerful nations were obstructive or unhelpful, smaller countries led the global defense of human rights. The U.N. Human Rights Council opened an investigation of abuses by all sides in Yemen thanks to the leadership of the Netherlands. The U.N. General Assembly circumvented Russia’s Security Council veto and named a prosecutor for war crimes in Syria because of leadership from Liechtenstein. Iceland led a public challenge at the U.N. Human Rights Council to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign of summary executions for drug suspects.

None of these models of resistance to populist or autocratic rule guarantees success. Anyone in office has the considerable advantage of being able to harness the power of the state. But the resistance shows that there is a struggle underway, that many people will not sit quietly as autocrats attack their basic rights and freedoms.

By contrast, where domestic resistance was suppressed and international concern lacking, populist leaders and other anti-human rights forces have prospered. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decimated the country’s democratic system with impunity as the EU focused on enlisting his help to halt the flight of refugees to Europe. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi crushed public dissent with little interference from the United States or the EU. They bought into his narrative of combating terrorism and ensuring regional stability, even though his ruthless suppression of any Islamic voices in the country’s political process was exactly what militant Islamists wanted.

The cost of not standing up to majoritarian attacks on human rights was perhaps starkest in Myanmar. Vitriolic nationalist rhetoric increasingly propagated by Buddhist extremists, senior members of the military, and some members of the civilian-led government helped to precipitate an ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, following a Rohingya militant group’s attack on security outposts. An army-led campaign of massacres, widespread rape, and mass arson in at least 354 villages sent more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing for their lives to neighboring Bangladesh. These are the very crimes that the international community had pledged never again to tolerate.

Yet the Western nations that had long taken an active interest in Myanmar were reluctant to act, even by imposing targeted financial and travel sanctions on the army generals behind these crimes against humanity. In part, that reticence was because of geopolitical competition with China for the Myanmar government’s favor. Also playing a part was the undue deference given to Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, even though she has no real control over the military and has shown no inclination to pay the political price of defending an unpopular minority. The result was the fastest forced mass exodus of people since the Rwandan genocide, with little immediate hope of the Rohingyas’ safe and voluntary return or of bringing to justice the people behind the atrocities that sent them fleeing.

The Philippines presented an especially brazen and deadly example of an authoritarian populist’s challenge to human rights. President Rodrigo Duterte took office encouraging the police to kill drug suspects, as he had done previously as mayor of Davao City. The resulting epidemic of police shootings — often portrayed as “shootouts” but repeatedly shown to be summary executions — has left more than 12,000 people dead in the roughly year and a half since Duterte took office. The vast majority of victims were young men from the slums of major cities — people who elicited little sympathy among many Filipinos. The ongoing territorial dispute among China, the United States, and the Philippines over the South China Sea left little room for concern about executions. Trump, as he has elsewhere, seemed mainly to admire Duterte’s “strongman” qualities.

Instead, a major source of pressure to stop the slaughter came from a collection of states led by Iceland that spoke out at the U.N. Human Rights Council. Duterte tried to disparage these “bleeding hearts” but ended up, under pressure, transferring authority to combat drugs, at least for a while, from the murderous police to a more law-abiding anti-narcotics agency. When the police were withdrawn from anti-drug operations, executions dropped precipitously.

The central lesson of the past year is that despite considerable headwinds, a vigorous defense of human rights can succeed. Populist politicians tend to offer superficial answers to complex problems, but broad swaths of the public, when reminded of the human rights principles at stake, can be convinced to reject the scapegoating of unpopular minorities and leaders’ efforts to undermine basic democratic checks and balances. What’s needed is principled resistance rather than surrender — a call to action rather than a cry of despair.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @KenRoth

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