New Powers Won’t Play by Old Rules on Human Rights

Published in the e-zine openGlobalRights, June 25, 2013

The following piece is a contribution to the Global Rights forum on Open Democracy. Over the next year, this forum will provide a venue for discussion and debate on a number of human rights issues. The piece is a reply to earlier contributions by the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, and by Peggy Hicks and Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch. The Global Rights forum on Open Democracy is a joint project of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and the Centre for the International Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice, at SOAS, University of London, and is supported by the Ford Foundation.

The world is changing: economic and political power is shifting from north and west to south and east; liberal democracies will increasingly share or cede global power to authoritarian regimes or emerging powers that prioritize sovereignty and non-interference over concern for human rights abroad. It would seem that for many international human rights advocates, however, these changes require no fundamental re-orientation of strategy. In the pieces they contributed to this forum, Peggy Hicks and Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Salil Shetty of Amnesty International (AI) argue along similar lines. They insist that as new global powers emerge NGOs must demand of them – no less than existing powers – that they use their growing influence to pressure recalcitrant regimes to respect human rights.

In response to the obvious weakness in such a strategy – countries like China and Russia are themselves open to the charge of widespread human rights abuse, and thus can hardly be expected to wield it in good faith against others – AI and HRW argue that the democracies among the rising powers, most prominently, Brazil, India, and South Africa, must promote abroad the values they claim to be committed to at home. Their record in doing so may be disappointing, but AI and HRW argue that there are successful examples of them doing so. And they point out that, in any case, inconsistency in promoting human rights abroad is to be expected, and indeed is familiar in the record of western democracies.

They make a compelling argument. The demands of impartiality and simply clever campaigning suggest that international NGOs should make similar demands of all governments whose global power gives them influence. The fact that these NGOs have western origins and funding is further cause for them to make a greater effort to engage non-western powers, in order to demonstrate their even-handedness and to give substance to the claim of universality. And, indeed, both AI and HRW are actively pursuing strategies that will deepen their presence and engagement in and with these new powers, including through stronger linkages to civil society actors in these countries….

Read the rest of this article on the Open Global Rights website.

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