Populism and human rights: a new playbook

Guest article by César Rodríguez-Garavito and Krizna Gomez, Dejusticia, Colombia

The proliferation of populist governments and movements creates serious risks and challenges for human rights around the world, from India, the United States and Venezuela to Hungary, the Philippines, Russia and Turkey. However, the rise of such governments could have unexpected positive effects, by pushing the human rights movement to make changes in its architecture and strategy that were imperative before and are urgent now.

Before the decline of the global Anglo-American order - reflected in Brexit, the election of Trump, the proliferation of illiberal nationalisms across the world and the increasing influence of China and Russia - the answers that many analysts and practitioners in the human rights movement offered tended to be grouped into two extremes: scepticism and defensiveness. The sceptics announced the ‘end times’ of the international human rights project, based on a view that human rights were imposed by Euro-American forces. Given this view, the end of Pax Americana would also be the end of the international human rights movement. The sceptics’ view is both thought-provoking and inexact, as it forgets that this regime was built in part with the ideas and the pressure of states and movements of the global south, as seen for example in the 1948 American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man and postcolonial movements of the 1960s.

To recognise the history and accomplishments of the international human rights movement is not however to imply that there are no serious flaws in the dominant tactics used in human rights under the Euro-American order, including ‘naming and shaming’ tactics and law-focused ones. Nor does it imply that, with the decline of that global order and the tribulations of liberal democracy, the conventional tactics will be any more sufficient or effective than they have been of late.

In a multipolar world, the old ‘boomerang’ approach of appealing to Washington, London, or Geneva so that global north governments would pressure their global south counterparts to comply with international human rights standards was already losing its effectiveness. With populist leaders stoking nationalism and violating the basic rights of vulnerable groups, such as religious and racial minorities, both in the global north and global south, the limited effectiveness and legitimacy of naming and shaming strategies focused on the traditional centres of power have been further eroded.

Moreover, the proliferation of illiberal democracies puts considerable pressure on the faultlines and blind spots of the contemporary human rights architecture. Populist leaders have learned to exploit the weaknesses of the architecture and strategic repertoire of human rights, including the overreliance on international funding and the asymmetric power balance between international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and global south civil society organisations (CSOs), among others. That is why the second response - the defence and reinforcement of the movement’s status quo - is equally ill-equipped to confront the rise of illiberal democracies, populist or otherwise.

Though many of the current measures against human rights, such as smear campaigns, are not new, the attacks are now coming from elected governments, as opposed to the dictatorships of the past. Further, these contemporary populist regimes are not confined to a particular political or economic ideology. Rather, as scholar Jan Werner Müller argues, they embody the combination of two particular traits: anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. The leaders of these regimes make a moral claim as radical as it is exclusionary: that only one part of the population counts as ‘the real people’, while the others are seen as ‘enemies of the people’. Who exactly constitutes ‘the elite’ and ‘the real people’ depends on the particular socio-political context and the power play between relevant sectors of the population. For example, in Brexit Britain, ‘the elite’ were the European Union (EU) bureaucrats and London financiers who, in the view of Brexit populists, sold the idea of the UK’s membership of the EU in order to enrich themselves. Often, human rights advocates are portrayed as part of this elite group, and thus fit squarely within the basic populist moral logic of ‘us versus them’ that goes directly against the basic tenets of human rights.

The challenge comes in the form of political narratives, legal changes and coercive measures aimed at eroding one or both of two things: the legitimacy and efficacy of human rights actors and civil society more generally. Altogether, the result has become a ‘global war against NGOs’, the script of which seems to follow an unwritten playbook of restrictive measures shared among these leaders. These include primarily five types of actions:

  1. restrictions on foreign funding for CSOs;
  2. smear campaigns;
  3. restrictions on fundamental rights that strike at the heart of the work of independent media and CSOs;
  4. severe burdens on the operational capabilities of human rights actors and civil society at large;
  5. co-optation of sections of civil society.

This playbook crosses the geographic and ideological divide, whether from the right or the left, as human rights actors and CSOs in all corners of the world face similar measures that impede and undermine their work. For example, between 2012 and 2015, laws restricting civil society space were passed or proposed in 98 countries, 36 per cent of them dealing with foreign funding. Further, countries as distinct as Cambodia, Russia, Turkey and Venezuela have accused domestic CSOs and activists of plotting against the state and fomenting conspiracy as foreign agents. These governments have utilised other shared strategies with even more severe effects, including limiting the essential rights to life, liberty, association and expression that advocates both fight for and rely on for their very existence.

Evidently, the populist challenge has contributed dramatically to this rising sense of a ‘crisis’ in the field. However, the concomitant longer-term changes in geopolitics, technology and demography have likewise created new challenges for the movement. Faced with this uncertainty, it is high time for the movement to undergo a reflective reconstruction. The human rights community needs to learn from and respond to the crackdown on civil society and activists to reinvigorate new ways of thinking about and practising human rights. A recent book we have edited on the subject, on which this contribution to CIVICUS’ reimagining democracy report is based, Rising to the Populist Challenge: A New Playbook for Human Rights Actors, considers a fresh diagnosis on the erosion of democracy and rights and collects a repertoire of responses from human rights scholars and advocates to contribute to a new playbook, including to question this framework of crisis and replace it with one of hope.

Based on our previous action-research work and the contributions of activists and academics to this volume, we posit that the new playbook will need to put less emphasis on traditional naming and shaming strategies, and instead connect with new constituencies, including by appealing to emotions, values and the public imagination instead of using jargon, combine online and offline mobilisation, and develop horizontal forms of collaboration between global north and global south organisations. Further, by fostering a spirit of innovation, including by incorporating other movements, sectors and disciplines, the movement can go beyond the traditional tools of human rights advocacy and successfully adapt to the new, hostile circumstances.

Kathryn Sikkink, in her book ‘Evidence for Hope’ and in her chapter in our edited volume, argues that the frame of crisis and peril that human rights actors themselves have come to imbibe is not only historically inaccurate but also dangerous for the movement. Thomas Coombes, Head of Brand at Amnesty International, who has studied the work of cause communicators and undertaken audience research about human rights around the world, has also found that for human rights communication to be powerful and transformative, it needs to be ‘about hope and opportunity, not fear and threat’ - a stance that is often unheard of in a field that is used to shining a light on grave violations of rights and liberties.

Ideally, human rights analysts and practitioners would have addressed the weaknesses and developed a new strategic playbook in times of relative normality. Now we will have to do it in extraordinary times. However, the novel strategies and narratives presented in our volume demonstrate that these times of turmoil can in fact be moments of immense creativity, innovation and, overall, hope.

This contribution to the CIVICUS report on reimagining democracy is an adaptation of the authors’ book chapter in ‘Rising to the Populist Challenge: A New Playbook for Human Rights Actors’, edited by the authors and published by Dejusticia in April 2018.