Human rights in a multi-polar world

Agnès Callamard
8 May 2014

The evidence is in: we are labouring through the difficult birth of a multi-polar system without modern historical precedent. The forces, actors and issues it gives rise to both overlap and seem contradictory, transcending any geographical locations.  As troublingly, the emerging order seems to amplify great power tensions and fails to offer a truly alternative model for global governance.  For those concerned with human rights, three characteristics of this new world order are worth highlighting.

The first is the challenge over territories and the rise of sovereign claim and counter claim. This is particularly well exemplified by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the emerging conflict in eastern Ukraine.  But it is also at the heart of other disputes, including over unpopulated rocky outcrops in the South China Sea, where China is confronting its smaller neighbours including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.  This is not to say that territorial disputes and competitive claims have suddenly resurfaced, but rather to observe that in pursuing these competing claims states seem more ready to resort to provocative behaviour and even military force.  

The second distinction of the new era is the continued hegemony of the post-9/11 security doctrine.  The ‘global war on terror’ doctrine has continued apace as evidenced by the US drone programme and other counter-terrorism practices. These are an acknowledged part of a worldwide conflict against al-Qa’ida and allied groups conducted as if  “human rights obligations do not apply”.  In 2013, leaked documents from the National Security Agency revealed the extent of US surveillance globally and its betrayal of the rights to privacy and free speech, confirming security as the “algorithm de rigueur. This exposé followed revelations about democratic governments’ complicity in extraordinary rendition and acts of torture.  It coincided too with the emergence of new conflicts involving Islamist groups in Mali and Syria, renewed fighting in long running conflicts like Iraq, and escalating violence in lower-level conflict settings like Nigeria. An increase in acts of terror worldwide displays the failings of counter-terrorism strategies on a global scale.

Multi-polarity further involves heightened conflict over supposed ‘western’ and ‘non-western’ values - standpoints that both reflect and transcend geography and history. Anti-western views find a chilling expression in Russian President Putin’s repeated references to ‘the fifth column’ and his xenophobic language, or in Uganda’s or Nigeria’s laws prohibiting homosexuality in the name of ‘African values’.  But some of this is a false dichotomy, as even in the US various states are seeking to adopt laws discriminating against LGBT, and in Croatia the people voted overwhelmingly to prohibit gay marriage in a referendum in December 2013.  Southern countries were divided in recent UN population debates with the Philippines, Vietnam and Latin America countries among the most vocal in defending sexual and reproductive rights for women, while the Caribbean and a number of African countries viewed this issue as a Trojan horse for gay rights and gay marriage. This decade’s cultural wars are not the west versus the rest, but a stand-off between trans-national movements: the human rights and LGBTI movement on one side, with the ultra-conservative and religious movements on the other. 

These characteristics undermine both the international capacity to prevent and respond to conflicts and the authority of the international human rights framework.   This is evidenced by the fact that after nearly two decades of relative constancy in the number of conflicts, with the 2000s the least conflict-ridden decade since the 1970s, the last three to four years have seen a higher number of internationalized conflicts and, at least according to some data, a “troubling rebound in the occurrence of mass atrocities”. Further, with the likelihood of the conflict over Ukraine continuing over the months ahead, and against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in Syria, there are even fewer prospects for consensus in the UN Security Council. This will further weaken the ability to respond effectively to crises.  Finally, challenges and conflicts over human rights norms disguised as fights for cultural survival are likely to be the modus operandi in many debates ahead, in the United Nations and elsewhere.  

What does all this mean for international efforts to promote and protect human rights?

First, it seems clear that we have to build a far more nuanced understanding of ‘culture’ and ‘values’ than we have displayed thus far.  One way of doing so is to ground reference to such terms in the established human rights framework on cultural rights.  This, in turn, will assist in depoliticising the use or misuse of values.   Another is to recall and insist that culture is not fixed, homogenous, and monolithic.

Further, we need to renew our strategic and tactical thinking about how best to protect the human rights gains of recent decades in light of the many challenges from an increasingly well organised counter-movement. There are some successful precedents to follow, such as the multi-layered approach adopted to quieten the acrimonious fight in the UN Human Rights Council over the issue of defamation of religion

Thirdly, creative and courageous thinking is required to address the likelihood of political paralysis in UN bodies. In the field of international law, new thinking is needed on how international legal rules deal with issues of jurisdiction in a world where geography is less important, as suggested by Daniel Bethlehem. When it comes to the UN, freeing its operations and programs from strict rules requiring consensus should drive the new thinking. In that respect, the UN Rights Up Front strategy, adopted in November 2013 by the UN Secretary-General in response to a very critical assessment of the UN’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka in 2009, ought to be fully implemented.  One of its underlying premises is that international political paralysis prohibits effective response to massive human rights violations, and requires stronger UN strategic and operational capacities. The plan goes on to identify six actions many of which concern prevention.  The renewed conceptualisation over jurisdiction (and thus sovereignty) and re-energized UN operations were well embodied in a recent call on UN humanitarian agencies to defy the Syrian government's "arbitrary" refusal to allow food aid and medical supplies in rebel-held areas.

Finally, exploring and strengthening other ways of working together should logically accompany engagement in a multi-polar world. The ‘multi-stakeholder’ approach adopted by many working in the field of internet governance for instance, may present learning, tools and positive examples to be adapted to other human rights causes. 

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