« More blog articles

Is the cry of ‘human rights!’ still useful, in the 21st Century, to groups and individuals in their pursuit of justice or freedom or fairness?

Posted on: November 3, 2023

This article was written by the author of Human Rights and Populism by Jolyon Ford.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This foundational document of our modern era came out of the horrors of World War 2. In the decades of de-colonisation (1960s-70s) and post-Soviet democratisation (1990s), and as an international treaty-based rights promotion and protection system took shape, framing one’s claim in terms of ‘human rights’ arguably gave it a certain imperative and priority power and traction, something almost above or beyond mere politics.

Sure, ‘human rights’ always had its critics, notably from among cultural relativists who argued that the global rights framework was not in fact ‘universal’ but culturally specific, an overly Western set of individualistic claims. However, for decades it has been difficult to deny the profound impact of the core idea that any state’s legitimacy was contingent on how it treated its own people. Unresponsive, discriminatory, violent or autocratic regimes found that they at least needed to try to engage in debates in human rights terms.

But that was then. What is the future, now, of ‘human rights’, this once-powerful language of politics and contestation?

The new book Human Rights and Populism asks this question in the context of the perceived rise, in the last 10-12 years, of openly populist politicking in democratic states around the world.

Who are these ‘populists’? Trumpism, Brexit politics, authoritarian legalism in Poland and Hungary, Modi’s populist-nationalist brand in India, Erdogan’s personality cult in Turkey or Duterte’s in the Philippines, endemic economic populism on both the Left and Right in Latin America.

What is supposedly common to these otherwise diverse places? Observers would say that ‘populism’ involves a marked form of direct politics, leaders reaching people, and conducting politics, both directly (using social media) and largely outside of institutions or party membership mechanisms; ‘populism’ is said to be marked by anti-elitism or anti-establishmentarianism, non-inclusive appeals to ‘us’ versus ‘them’ in pluralistic societies, and attempts to undermine constitutionalism by justifying measures that are seen as illegitimately constraining the leader’s ability to do ‘the people’s’ will in a more direct, unmediated way.

Where do human rights come in? The literature would say that in these conditions human rights are dismissed or derided as illegitimate, even foreign, constraints on the majority’s will and the national destiny. On this account, ‘human rights’ and its defenders are portrayed as pedantic, legalistic, out-of-touch elites hampering the furthering of the ‘greater good’ in favour of undeserving (often, but not always, immigrant) minorities. ‘My critics are interested in human rights’ scoffed then-President Duterte in a national address in 2018, ‘whereas I am interested in human lives.’

This is powerful rhetoric and not easy to simply dismiss. From about 2015, but especially at the height of Trump’s presidency and copycat politicking from Brazil to Zimbabwe, for many scholars and advocates of human rights -- right up to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights -- Duterte’s sort of politically effective de-legitimisation of human rights language and mechanisms has ushered in an era of fundamental, almost existential, challenges to the idea, utility and power of human rights.

Yet the book Human Rights and Populism sets out to challenge this response. It offers a critical (or perhaps self-critical) examination of how the human rights movement itself contributed to these challenges. How could one argue this? Well, on one view the ‘populism + human rights’ literature treats the post-1945 human rights project as a passive victim of this wicked external pathology called populism. For the most part it does not stop to ask whether the human rights movement itself, aligned with prevailing models of liberalism, contributed to some of the conditions for authoritarian-idealising populism to gain traction.

That is, if anything is urgent in human rights today, perhaps it is the need for critical self-reflection, as a pre-requisite to any attempts to renew and reaffirm the global human rights idea towards the centenary of the Universal Declaration 25 years from now.

What question, then, ought to be asked? Arguably, the whole populism phenomenon obliges those of us committed to human rights to ask how ‘universal rights for all’ became so easily dismissed as narrow legalistic claims by patronising elites favouring undeserving minorities (immigrants, drug-users, gays, criminals, activists, etc.). How was a human rights approach relied on in ways that perhaps alienated key constituencies, in ways that took the value of rights as self-evident, in ways that meant we just avoided the hard but necessary politics of persuasion, empathy, alignment, adjustment? Did we all focus unduly on civil and political rights (post-9/11 especially) in ways that meant we lost contact with the valid socio-economic insecurities of large parts of the voting population? Does a human rights frame or appeal sound hollow to those disillusioned with the yield from the marriage of liberal democracy and market capitalism?

There must be some explanation why populist political attacks on human rights and its defenders seem to gain political traction. My book is an attempt at reflection by the human rights academy and movement. It is a call for humility in seeing that the value and universality of the human rights project is just not always self-evident in our wider societies. How to respond to that without just being a preachy, patronising elitist is a far harder question to answer!