With the UN toothless, we must all become more versatile, collaborative and technologically adept in tackling abuses around the world.
The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, recently announced he would not be seeking a second term in office. “To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication… lessening the independence and integrity of my voice,” he explained.
His vivid words implied that human rights advocacy has become untenable and this statement of resignation – from a highly respected and effective voice – is a tragic indictment of the current state of play. Consider, for a start, the Trump administration’s record, including attempts to ban Muslim travel and exclude transgender people from the military, and how it highlights a UN system now deprived of an important historical champion. What’s more, faced with rising populist nationalism, European states have largely failed to fill the void and the continent’s treatment of refugees has seriously damaged its moral authority.
Deprived, then, of its traditional liberal democratic allies, the UN system appears increasingly toothless. It effectively operates as a peer network and without strong government leadership, it struggles to bring about change. Instead, for the “west”, arms exports to Saudi Arabia, migration deals with Turkey and trade deals with China have been prioritised over speaking out on human rights. And the consequences of silence and complicity have been manifest – from slaughter and starvation in Yemen to forced repatriation of the Rohingya, impunity in Syria and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.
However, the mood of resignation is premature and wrongheaded. It is time to fight for human rights – but equally time to reimagine how they are achieved in a changing world. And this requires leadership from within and beyond the UN system. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which heralded a historical period during which a swath of treaties were agreed. These treaties are among the great achievements of the 20th century and must be maintained. But alone they are insufficient to ensure compliance and implementation. Reminding governments that they are breaking the laws they signed up to is no longer working.
The temptation for UN agencies is to try to see out the current impasse and hope for a return of the bygone era. The problem with this strategy, however, is that the current geopolitical climate may not be a blip but instead result from fundamental changes. The rise of “multi-polarity” – where power is widely dispersed among nations – may indefinitely deprive the human rights system its “enforcer of last resort”. Meanwhile, populist nationalism could be a long-term feature of the political landscape. Sustaining a viable human rights system in the new world order will require adaptation and innovation
First, non-traditional players can play a significant role. Last week, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, suggested that the story of 2017 was one of quietly effective resistance. These scattered successes were the result of political mobilisation by small groups of states, filling the void left by others and often working with civil society. For example, the Netherlands led a coalition at the human rights council to investigate Saudi-backed atrocities in Yemen. Iceland led the council to condemn Rodrigo Duterte’s backing for summary executions in the Philippines’ war on drugs.
Second, “constructive engagement” offers hope. Reporting violations and resorting to legal channels, including courts, to assert human rights law can influence state behaviour, but it doesn’t always. In areas such as alternatives to detention for asylum seekers and police reform, working with states to identify “good practices” that better reconcile national interests with human rights can bring more success.
Third: transnational action. If traditional intergovernmental mechanisms are failing, let’s find ways to bypass them. States are not the only route to progress. Press investigations, businesses managing their global supply chain, charities tackling modern slavery and environmental standards all have implications for human rights. They respond to consumers and shareholders rather than voters and their choices can influence elite political preferences, even in authoritarian regimes. In 1961, an article published in the Observer led to the creation of Amnesty International.
More recently, the transnational media investigation into slavery in the Thai prawn processing market led to major global retailers being exposed, passing pressure on to their Thai suppliers, which were forced to commit to reform. Thai law changed, arrests were made. Serious questions remain about slavery within the industry, but progress has been made. And yet business is still not a central focus of the human rights system.
There are also new technologies available to empower transnational civil society. Though the extent of tech influence can be debated, the Arab spring revealed the rapidity with which the internet can now mobilise action. And yet there has been too little systematic reflection on how this can change the business model of the human rights system. How, for instance, can a digital world offer greater protection from reprisals and lend voice to human rights defenders? To be effective, human rights defenders need to be technologically ahead of repressive regimes. And this requires a system with technological capacity.
Promoting human rights in a multipolar world of rising nationalism will not be easy. But the core principles developed over the past 70 years are needed now at least as much as at any time in that period. The system requires innovation, not resignation, and innovation. It needs us all to work together to overcome collective indifference.
The reinvigoration of human rights must entail a commitment to justice and inalienable rights at every level of society. But it also requires strategic, entrepreneurial and creative thinking.
Alexander Betts is Leopold Muller Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs and a Fellow of Green-Templeton College at the University of Oxford, where he was previously the Hedley Bull Research Fellow in International Relations. He received his MPhil (in Development Studies, with Distinction) and DPhil (in International Relations) from the University of Oxford.