How human rights believers should respond to the Trump era
Donald Trump’s agenda has presented a challenge to all of us involved in the human rights movement especially as he follows a path blazed by leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin. A range of politicians in Europe, hoping for electoral gains in France, Germany and the Netherlands this year, also make common cause with him.
The playbook used by these leaders is to project themselves to a sufficiently large section of the public as someone who is on their side by tapping into a discontent at how elites have left them behind. A solution is offered which involves demonizing an “other”.
Analysts of all political persuasions have been warning for years that after the global financial crisis, there is growing anger at the levels of inequality that exist within and between countries. Oxfam released a report last week which showed that eight people own as much as wealth as the poorest half of all the people in the world. In this context, the ideas that have been popularized by these leaders are those that scapegoat other people. In reality though, these are not solutions to our problems.
There is a risk meanwhile of human rights activists appearing to helplessly stand on the sidelines to condemn issues such as crackdowns on free speech and the use of torture. All of this will be ignored by a strong leader who claims to have a popular mandate for his actions. Some are warning that this is even more serious than possible temporary irrelevance for the human rights project - we may see support for universal basics completely wither away in the coming years.
This is especially the case if we are seen to mainly concern ourselves with what some can paint as more ethereal matters. While these causes remain critical, the focus on them has the effect of making us appear out of touch with the daily lives of most people and leaves us accused of weakening security.
This is an unusual situation in which human rights activists find themselves because we also believe in the indivisibility of human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This means that as well as believing in civil and political rights like the prohibition of discrimination and slavery, we also believe in economic and social ones like the right to education and the right to access healthcare and social services. We believe in the right to work, to receive a fair wage for it, and a right to an adequate standard of living.
"The way forward for human rights activists therefore must be to demonstrate that our cause resonates with the everyday lives of ordinary people. We must show how rights benefit people’s households, communities and nations."
The way forward for human rights activists therefore must be to demonstrate that our cause resonates with the everyday lives of ordinary people. We must show how rights benefit people’s households, communities and nations. As Amartya Sen argued decades ago, economic development requires freedom and freedom lacks value without development. The two go hand-in-hand.
This was seen during the Arab Spring. The headline calls from the crowds was for the fall of their regimes, but what spurred them into action was the need for bread and jobs. On the Arab world, global human rights activists are rightly vocal on issues such as the death penalty, free speech and torture. Blasphemy laws should indeed be repealed and religious minorities must be protected and respected. But this is also a region beset with poverty and inequality and our voices of concern can appear insincere without addressing the whole picture. Global human rights groups have devoted much less attention to issues such as health, food, and other rights affecting the overall welfare of most of the people. There are good historical reasons why this is the case, but we must now find ways to advance the whole of the human rights agenda or face irrelevance.
The election of Donald Trump gives us is an opportunity to renew the global human rights project. Attempts at demonstrating the universalism of human rights often stumbled due to an erroneous perception that they were actually a western concept. If the president of the United States openly turns his face against sixty years of progress, it could perversely help galvanize in all parts of the world – but only if we take seriously human rights in all their forms.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post