'Toxic rhetoric’ takes human rights into dark age

Some of the world’s largest countries are not being held to account when it comes to human rights violations
Mother and child refugee 4x3
Syrian refugees Mstyslav Chernov

2016 will go down as an ‘annus horribilis’ when it comes to human rights, if the latest Amnesty International report is any indication.

“Toxic rhetoric” … “a vacuum of leadership on a chaotic world stage” …. “a lack of political will” … and “divisive fear mongering” are all descriptions found in The State of the World’s Human Rights assessment, published last month.

Around 23 per cent of the 159 countries analysed violated international law by sending refugees back to a country where their rights were at risk, another 15 per cent committed war crimes and 14 per cent of governments killed people for peacefully standing up for their fellow human beings.  

At what point did human rights start unravelling across the world?

Dr Bronwen Manby, Visiting Senior Fellow in LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights, said 9/11 marked a change in international support for human rights.

“Up until then, we had a decade of positive trajectory. Of course, there were many problems in the world but there was the sense that things were fundamentally moving in the right direction, that there was at least some will to address them,” she said.  Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the commitment to human rights has waned among some key governments.

“Part of the issue lies in the presumption that the United States and European Union are the arbiters of human rights on the world stage, leading by example and putting pressure on other countries to live up to international standards.

“That rather patronising model was already looking a little creaky but is completely broken now,” Dr Manby said, given the recent events in Europe and the election of Donald Trump, who in his first weeks in office implemented a controversial executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

Amnesty’s 2016 report warns that an “us v them” narrative of blame, hate and fear is undermining the foundations of human rights, leaving the door open to abuses reminiscent of the “darkest times in human history”.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, is quoted as saying the “toxic rhetoric being used by politicians around the world risks taking us into a dark age of human rights and could lead to profound consequences for us all”.

Many strong economies have turned on refugees and migrants in recent years in the guise of “protecting national interests and pursuing narrow self-interests”, the report claims.

Reports have also surfaced in recent days that the Trump administration is considering pulling the US out of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“Such a move would send a message to the world that any country can revert to the 19th century rule that treatment of its own citizens is a matter of national sovereignty. It would seriously undermine the entire edifice of international human rights law that has been constructed since the Second World War,” Dr Manby said.

The United States is not the only guilty party, however. India, Russia, Turkey and China – all powerful states – committed serious human rights breaches in 2016, while the UK Government is threatening to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Some of the world’s largest countries are not being held to account when it comes to human rights violations,” Dr Manby said.

“African states remain an exception when it comes to hosting large numbers of refugees, in strong contrast to the current mood in the US, UK, and some other European countries.

“There are many bad governments in Africa but the commitment to human rights at the continental level provides a positive light in a gloomy environment,” Dr Manby said, noting the strong role played by regional institutions in ensuring respect for the result of recent elections in The Gambia.

To address the human rights setbacks, organisations like Amnesty International are changing their tack, focusing more on issues of economic and social rights to address global inequalities.

“These inequalities seem to be the root cause of a rising tide of populism, xenophobia and nationalism,” Dr Manby said.

“It is time we started looking at questions about decent work conditions, security of tenure and other issues where people feel human rights are directly relevant to them, rather than allowing the human rights agenda to be portrayed as being just about prisoners, foreigners and refugees,” she said.

Behind the article

Dr Bronwen Manby is an independent consultant in the field of human rights, democracy and good governance, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. She has written on a wide range of human rights issues in Africa, with particular interests in South Africa and Nigeria and in continental developments in human rights law. Recently, her research and writing have focused on statelessness, comparative nationality law, and legal identity, and she has worked closely with UNHCR on its global campaign against statelessness.