Introduction by Executive Director Kenneth Roth
The Dangerous Rise of Populism. Global Attacks on Human Rights Values
Human rights exist to protect people from government abuse and neglect. Rights limit what a state can do and impose obligations for how a state must act. Yet today a new generation of populists is turning this protection on its head. Claiming to speak for “the people,” they treat rights as an impediment to their conception of the majority will, a needless obstacle to defending the nation from perceived threats and evils. Instead of accepting rights as protecting everyone, they privilege the declared interests of the majority, encouraging people to adopt the dangerous belief that they will never themselves need to assert rights against an overreaching government claiming to act in their name.
The appeal of the populists has grown with mounting public discontent over the status quo. In the West, many people feel left behind by technological change, the global economy, and growing inequality. Horrific incidents of terrorism generate apprehension and fear. Some are uneasy with societies that have become more ethnically, religiously and racially diverse. There is an increasing sense that governments and the elite ignore public concerns.
In this cauldron of discontent, certain politicians are flourishing and even gaining power by portraying rights as protecting only the terrorist suspect or the asylum seeker at the expense of the safety, economic welfare, and cultural preferences of the presumed majority. They scapegoat refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities. Truth is a frequent casualty. Nativism, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are on the rise.
This dangerous trend threatens to reverse the accomplishments of the modern human rights movement. In its early years, that movement was preoccupied with the atrocities of World War II and the repression associated with the Cold War. Having seen the evil that governments can do, states adopted a series of human rights treaties to limit and deter future abuse. Protecting these rights was understood as necessary for individuals to live in dignity. Growing respect for rights laid the foundation for freer, safer, and more prosperous societies.
But today, a growing number of people have come to see rights not as protecting them from the state but as undermining governmental efforts to defend them. In the United States and Europe, the perceived threat at the top of the list is migration, where concerns about cultural identity, economic opportunity, and terrorism intersect. Encouraged by populists, an expanding segment of the public sees rights as protecting only these “other” people, not themselves, and thus as dispensable. If the majority wants to limit the rights of refugees, migrants, or minorities, the populists suggest, it should be free to do so. That international treaties and institutions stand in the way only intensifies this antipathy toward rights in a world where nativism is often prized over globalism.
It is perhaps human nature that it is harder to identify with people who differ from oneself, and easier to accept violation of their rights. People take solace in the hazardous assumption that the selective enforcement of rights is possible—that the rights of others can be compromised while their own remain secure.
But rights by their nature do not admit an à la carte approach. You may not like your neighbors, but if you sacrifice their rights today, you jeopardize your own tomorrow, because ultimately rights are grounded on the reciprocal duty to treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. To violate the rights of some is to erode the edifice of rights that inevitably will be needed by members of the presumed majority in whose name current violations occur.
We forget at our peril the demagogues of yesteryear—the fascists, communists, and their ilk who claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual. When populists treat rights as an obstacle to their vision of the majority will, it is only a matter of time before they turn on those who disagree with their agenda. The risk only heightens when populists attack the independence of the judiciary for upholding the rule of law—that is, for enforcing the limits on governmental conduct that rights impose.
Such claims of unfettered majoritarianism, and the attacks on the checks and balances that constrain governmental power, are perhaps the greatest danger today to the future of democracy in the West.
The main issues highlighted by Kenneth Roth in his foreword:
1. Spreading Threat and Tepid Response
2. Trump’s Dangerous Rhetoric
3. The Populist Wave in Europe
4. Rising Authoritarianism in Turkey and Egypt
5. The Shallow Appeal of the Strongman
6. Civic Groups and the International Criminal Court Under Attack
7. Attacks on Civilians in Syria
8. The Need to Reaffirm Human Rights Values
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