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Coming soon – a truly global human rights revolution?

David Petrasek is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.

There is an unmistakable fin de régime sentiment to much current thinking regarding international human rights. Conferences and discussion forums convene to debate ‘the future of human rights’, with implicit in the title the idea that there might not be one.  An upsurge in interest in the history of international human rights activism lends nostalgia to the topic, especially when it is argued that its popularity is contingent on historical circumstances - that may change. More provocatively, a new book posits the “end times” of human rights, with the allure of international human rights discourse declining alongside the liberal powers that were its promoters.  

Declining western power only partly explains this malaise. It is also attributable to the manifest failure of global institutions, like the UN and the International Criminal Court, to respond effectively to ongoing human rights crises.  However, insofar as the decline of the west is said to portend declining interest in human rights, the argument wrongly conflates the two, and ignores demographic, social and technological trends that point clearly to a robust future for transnational human rights concerns.  

Regarding the first point, it is mistaken to assume a decline in western power will lead to declining global attention to human rights issues, or to the appeal of human rights discourse. First, as argued elsewhere, western states were hardly consistent or altruistic in prioritizing human rights in their foreign policy. More importantly, it was not only western states that pushed forward the international human rights project. African and Latin American states led in elaborating new standards prohibiting racial discrimination and impunity, and both regions were at the forefront in supporting an International Criminal Court, even as the US sought to block the project. (Some of the African states are less enthusiastic today, but that is a separate story.)

As regards certain human rights claims – ones decrying global inequities that keep people poor, ones in favour of the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers, or ones in favour of bringing investment and trade policy in line with human rights – many developing countries have long articulated much more progressive positions than western states.  

In addition, rather than being less interested in human rights, emerging powers may simply show less enthusiasm for certain methods of raising human rights concerns:  those that rely primarily on states naming and shaming other states, for example. Passing UN resolutions that criticize a state’s human rights record is important, but it isn’t necessarily effective. Similarly, conditioning aid or membership in various clubs in the basis of states’ respect for human rights may work in some cases and not in others. Rather than simply lament the less frequent use of contested tactics with uncertain results, it would be better to hold emerging powers to their promise of prioritizing dialogue and engagement on human rights, and explore what serious south-south discussions might achieve. In any event, there is hardly uniform opposition among non-western states to country-specific votes and criticism.   

Finally, it is wrong to equate the growth in global human rights activism with the power of western states, as if this activism must necessarily lose its impact as that hegemony gives way. Organizations like Amnesty International, religious groups, pacifists, anti-nuclear campaigners, third world solidarity groups and many others who first gave voice to transnational human rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s were, in many instances, perceived as deeply subversive by western governments. Further, they were not all western. Conflating American foreign policy and global human rights activism within a broad current of ‘liberal internationalism’ negates the role played by many in the third world who invoked the language of universal human rights in anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles. The ANC embraced the language of universal human rights long before the US State Department.      

In short, it is reductionist to argue that declining western power must result in declining interest in human rights. But more importantly, this power shift is only one of many global trends, and likely not the most determinative for the future of the international human rights project.

While forecasting political trends is inherently speculative, it is less so with respect to social and demographic trends, where decades of previous data allow fairly firm predictions about the future. And on some issues there is widespread agreement in the burgeoning global trends literature: education levels are increasing dramatically; there is a rapidly growing (and increasingly urbanized) middle class; and there is growing access to and availability of information. 

Consider just a few statistics. By 2030, 91% of the global population will complete primary education and 55% will complete secondary or higher education; the number of mobile-only Internet users will rise to 5 billion (from 14 million in 2010); and 60% of the world’s population will live in cities (up from 40% only ten years ago). Further, while extreme poverty will persist in many countries, the size of the global middle class will almost triple from 2010 to 2030 (from 1.8 billion to 4.9 billion).

The struggle for civil, political, social and economic rights in industrializing countries in the late 19th and 20th centuries differed from country to country. But among the common factors propelling these struggles were the mobilizing power provided by print and later broadcast media, rising literacy rates and the extension of education, and an emerging, largely urbanized lower middle class. As people are better educated, better connected, better informed and better able to demand their betterment, who can doubt that they will do so?

 Some might agree that these trends point to future struggles for greater freedom and well being, but argue that there is no guarantee they will be waged using the language of rights. Or they might argue that such struggles will be primarily local and not dependent on transnational human rights activism.

 Either outcome is possible—but rather than being future possibilities, both aptly describe the current reality. That is, human rights discourse is still largely limited to elites and has penetrated much less deeply than assumed into local struggles for justice. Further, the key driver of almost all human rights reform is still local; the transnational dimension is secondary. In short, the trends noted above look certain to widen what is still a somewhat narrow discourse on human rights, both within and between countries.

The “end times” of human rights? Doubtful. In fact, the real, truly global human rights revolution may just be starting.         


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