Skip to main content

Rise of populists most pressing rights issue of 2017: HRW

Rights group warns that populist movements and leaders, including Trump, Erdogan and Sisi create environment for intolerance and abuse
During US presidential campaign, Donald Trump spoke highly of Egypt's Sisi (AFP)

WASHINGTON DC - One of the most pressing dangers to human rights globally is the rise of populist leaders, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch said at a news conference in Washington on Thursday.

Citing the rising authoritarianism in Turkey and Egypt, the populist wave in Europe, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Roth warned that such movements create an environment in which human rights abuses can thrive.

“The appeal of the populists has grown with mounting public discontent over the status quo.”

-Kenneth Roth, HRW

Human Rights Watch issues its World Report annually, and the launch of the report is typically held in places that epitomise the core concern of the focus; previous cities have included Istanbul and Beirut.

“This year, the troubling themes we highlight bring us back to Washington for the first time in many years,” Roth said.

He added that the rhetoric of the campaign, which was “misogynistic, xenophobic and racist,” could  “cause tremendous harm to vulnerable communities, contravene the United States’ core human rights obligations, or both.”

Roth said that even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, the damage done during the campaign would have been lasting.

“The appeal of the populists has grown with mounting public discontent over the status quo,” Roth said. “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.”

Far from simply being an American problem, pseudo-populist leaders are either up for election or already holding office in countries around the globe, even those with a historically strong democratic ethos.

Claiming to speak for the majority, many of these leaders are increasingly abusive to the minority, or perceived minority. Ultimately, the rights of the individual are trampled.

“Human rights exist to protect people from governments,” Roth said. “Yet, today a new generation of populists is reversing that role.”

Changing perception of human rights post 9/11

While the human rights movement began as a means to protect individuals from authoritarian governments after the horrific crimes of World War II and the repression of the Cold War, the rise of the post-9/11 surveillance era has shifted that perception.

Human rights are now often viewed through populist agendas, such as preventing the government from protecting the individual from things like terrorist attacks, the perception of lost jobs through migration, and other governmental attempts to protect its citizens from the unknown.

During the campaign, Trump repeatedly pointed to such leaders - often authoritarian, occasionally dictatorial - as ones he would emulate if elected.

“What we saw from the campaign was Trump’s open admiration for autocrats,” Cole Bockenfeld, the deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) told Middle East Eye. “One of the ones he consistently speaks of is (Egyptian President Abdel Fattah) Sisi, and that his model and leadership in Egypt is something we need more of, and I think for a lot of the rights community, that’s a real concern.”

"What we saw from the campaign was Trump’s open admiration for autocrats" - Cole Bockenfeld

Leaders of Middle Eastern countries have long pointed to the United States’s history of human rights abuses in response to criticism of their own. Bockenfeld told MEE that the contradictions we’re seeing now are nothing new.

“For years, autocrats in the region have always talked about Guantanamo, or when Bush talked about (human rights violations) in certain countries but when it’s your allies, you’re more quiet,” Bockenfeld said. “It’s not something new in practice, but the emphasis and how the new policies and priorities are being shaped, it is a new tone. That our relationships are transactional.”

He added that openly admitting the nature of the relationship is a new tact that authoritarian governments in the Middle East have been pushing for.

Populism and the Arab Spring

Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings sparked a different kind of populism in Gulf monarchies.

“The governments got control of (dissent) through suppression but also by creating a stronger national project that would provide some space for the participation that younger people were advocating, but still under the leadership of the ruling families,” she told MEE.

Roth said leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “appear emboldened in their repressive path by the rise of Western populism, and by the West’s muted response.”

Diwan said Washington has traditionally addressed human rights issues behind closed doors.

“I don’t think they have been willing, in most cases, to make that a huge public issue that would affect major interests, whether it’s economic interests or security interests with these states,” Diwan said, citing Saudi Arabia in particular. “And there’s an underlying belief too that a US intervention wouldn’t be effective.”

Both Diwan and Bockenfeld pointed to the testimony of former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing for secretary of state.

“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Defeating ISIS must be our foremost priority in the Middle East,” Tillerson told lawmakers on Wednesday.

According to Bockenfeld, some advocates in the human rights community have interpreted those remarks to mean that human rights will take a backseat to more financially driven motives.

“It says that our priority is counterterrorism and human rights are important, but if it gets in the way of counterterrorism, then it isn’t,” Bockenfeld said.  

But Roth warns that the only way to combat the rise of the populist, and the ensuing erosion of human rights, is vigilance.

“Values are fragile. Because the values of human rights depend foremost on the ability to empathize with others—to recognize the importance of treating others the way we would want to be treated—they are especially vulnerable to the demagogue’s exclusionary appeal,” Roth said. “A society’s culture of respect for human rights needs regular tending, lest the fears of the moment sweep away the wisdom that built democratic rule.”