The most conspicuous headlines of the year 2016 were those related to political turmoil, violent conflicts and escalating human rights abuses across the globe. International agencies and human rights NGOs are increasingly warning of a looming decline in human rights globally particularly as a result of humanitarian crises across the Middle East and Africa, and a soaring populist nationalism in Western countries, as well as “national security” measures which are seen as a kind of creeping authoritarianism. Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report is even more damning and urgent, warning of an “insidious and creeping trend undermining human rights.” In additions, a recent report by CIVICUS Monitor shows that 3.2 billion people live in countries where civic space is repressed or closed.
The protection and defence of human rights has been a cornerstone of inclusive and open democratic societies over the past decades. Despite perpetual violations in many countries and the continuing debate over what is, and isn’t, a human right, our civic, political, social, economic and cultural freedoms have been strenuously protected and promoted. But, all that seems changing now.
Multiple sources from within and without the human rights movement have pointed to a deteriorating rule of law over the past decade, and a declining respect for basic civil and political rights. Amidst gradually-increasing restrictions on space for civic freedoms, they warn of a new era of controlled freedoms that is likely to undermine stability in many countries.
The methods of such restrictions range from the suppression of mass protests and silencing of individual protesters to technological intrusions and burdensome regulatory measures. An estimate suggests that during 2015-16, more than 60 laws, which are seen as an attempt to prevent civil society organizations (CSOs) from registering, protesting or receiving international financial support, have been adopted in various countries. This, indeed, constrains the ability of human rights defenders to do their work. In the current context of heightened security concerns and terrorist threats, governments have promulgated security measures and new regulatory frameworks, and these too have put everyone under greater scrutiny.
The trade-off between keeping people safe and protecting their freedoms, however, has not always been managed in a balanced way, with evidence showing the disproportionate impact of some of these measures on civil society organizations in certain parts of the world.
When it comes to our shrinking civic spaces, here are 5 things you need to know:
1. Not about usual suspects
Civic freedoms are being progressively restricted all over the world. At present nearly 3.2 billion people live in countries where the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are non-existent and if there are some, they are repressed. Amnesty International documented a severe assault on people’s basic freedoms in 2015-16, with more than 122 states ill-treating people, more than 30 illegally forcing refugees to return to countries where they would be in danger and 19 others committing war crimes or other violations of the “laws of war”. The trend encompasses countries that have traditionally been appreciative of inclusive societies and where now there is more sensitivity and cautiousness toward human rights work.
2. The effects
The unprecedented attack on rights has been visibly targeting CSOs, particularly those who are working in the governance, human rights and transparency domain. However, restrictions are also affecting the ability of engaged citizens and activists—particularly those daring to challenge economic and political elites, and to voice their concerns and exert their rights, especially freedoms of association, assembly and expression. The operational context of academia, philanthropic and other development and humanitarian entities is also scrutinised and constrained in specific geographies.
3. Technology: a double-edged sword
On the one hand, the digital domain has expanded the human rights space by offering citizens virtual platforms for engagement, expression and mobilization on issues they care about. On the other hand, technological tools are being used to increase control and surveillance on citizens, restricting their digital rights—and by consequence the digitally-enabled array of civil, political and economic rights—as well as limiting the sense of empowerment warranted by new technologies.
4. Enormous toll on society
Civil society is a critical player for the social, economic and political health of a nation, and serves a multitude of important functions and roles, meaningfully contributing to more inclusive, transparent, equal and sustainable societies. Closing the space for human rights and connected civil society activities not only reduces the number of actors and operations that are protecting and promoting the common good in society, but it also potentially increases the likelihood and impact of the risks connected to a shrinking civic space, including diminished trust in institutions, a rise in social unrest and enhanced socio-political and economic instability.
5. It’s never too late
In these turbulent times, rays of hope are on the horizon. Human rights defenders have been pushing back, turning to international solidarity for raising awareness of the issue and to innovative solutions and alliances for defending the space for civic freedoms, including the establishment of regional civil society innovation centres. Businesses have also started playing a role, with human rights defenders having increasingly called on them to support the promotion and protection of human rights. There are many interesting examples of businesses publicly raising their voices against attempts to limit civil-society activities, as well as creating partnerships with civil society on issues such as internet freedom and privacy.
International Human Rights Law
Every year on 10 December, the international community comes together to celebrate Human Rights Day and commemorate when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. Reaffirming its commitment to the realisation of basic human rights, this time the United Nations called on everyone to stand up for someone else’s rights.
International human rights law has come to face complex challenges in the recent two decades. Long gone the optimism that followed the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993 which confirmed that the major changes in the international political scene at the time and the aspirations of all the peoples around the world were finally moving in the same direction. Since then, political support for human rights globally has suffered a significant decline. Sovereignty, as a catchphrase to assert supremacy of preferences of domestic governments, is back in fashion undermining the very premise of international human rights law: to collectively set standards to ensure that the sovereignty is exercised for the protection and promotion of human rights of all.
A key trigger of the declining political support for human rights is the rise of a populist politics, particularly in Europe and the US, which vilifies human rights as an elitist and anti-democratic discourse, acting as the enemy of underdog masses. Many populist political movements around the world are in open retreat from upholding human rights obligations as specified by international human rights law of the last five decades. Significantly, the rise of anti-human rights populist politics unites a heterogeneous terrain bringing weak democratic regimes and authoritarian states together with constitutional democratic regimes of the West under pro-sovereignty, giving power back to people arguments. This has significant repercussions across the world as it revives the nihilist argument there can be no legal and universal core content to human rights.
The reappearance of sovereignty as the primary reference for the interpretation, application and recognition of human rights rings alarm bells both for well-established norms of human rights law; for example, that of the right to life, the prohibition against torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, protection of freedom of expression, and for the future development of international human rights law standards in pursuit of protection of the most vulnerable in the light of constantly changing social, political and economic conditions.
The negative effects of the declining support for human rights law and the anti-human rights rhetoric that accompanies it have already started to show its devastating effects on the most vulnerable groups. Asylum seekers, refugees and minority groups, in particular, have been hard hit. The failure of the European Union to distribute the burdens of incoming asylum seekers to Europe, in particular from Syria, has led to a paralysis of European refugee protection regime and threatens to undermine respect for principle of non-refoulement. Vulnerable minority groups, be they incoming asylum seekers or migrant religious communities have been vilified by populist politics undermining the recognition and respect for identities as the foundation of the principle of equality as developed under international human rights law.
The development of human rights law standards, for example, pertaining to specification of the rights of individuals who are caught up in conflict, are also bound to be effected by the decline of overall political support to human rights law. The fine-tuning of the application of human rights law in situations of conflict requires an overall commitment to the relevance of human rights law, when military necessity and security concerns are heightened.
The political support for human rights, as grim as it may look, does not, however, mean that the very purpose of the existence of international human rights law is mute. International human rights law is a project based on the premise that there is a significant value in collectively identifying legal and universally applicable fine-grained human rights standards and holding all states into account based on these standards. Scholars of international human rights law have time and again showed that the law of human rights is capable of taking into account the diversity of national and contextual circumstances, whilst holding on to the universalist ideal that informs this collective enterprise. In the last fifty years or so, with trial and error as well as comparative learning, we have created an identifiable corpus of international human rights law standards that does not only exist in academic books, but that also flourishes in court rooms and public imagination and on the streets. Whilst political support for human rights is in retreat in the name of populist politics, international human rights law will remain a central normative and legal source for challenging the retreat of that support.