Human Rights

updated November 2016

Political Backlash

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspired a generation in shock from events of the first half of the twentieth century. Today the idealism lies in some disarray, especially in the context of civil and political rights.

Too many despotic leaders are sustained in government through silencing the voice of their opponents rather than free and fair elections; too many governments respond to the refugee crisis with grand political bargains rather than respect for rights enshrined in international law.

The symptoms of this loss of appetite for protection of individual rights are not confined to headlines about fortress Europe or putative dictatorships in Russia, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Egypt. The concept of civic space, fundamental to democratic rights, is threatened by many developing countries which have enacted legislation clamping down on the activities of domestic NGOs.

A favourite target for restriction is the receipt of foreign funding, perceived as a tool of western ideology to promote democracy and other freedoms unwelcome to autocratic governments. Examples include India, Cambodia and Uganda.

Richer countries prefer to work behind the scenes in diluting human rights standards. The Edward Snowden revelations of 2013 exposed the US and UK spy agencies for their disregard of privacy in access to personal digital material. These countries also lead efforts to dilute references to human rights in multilateral environment and development agreements. Such behaviour is regularly on display in the tortuous rounds of UN climate negotiations, as it was at the landmark 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20.

This tightening of personal freedoms in both advanced and developing economies is most often justified as an unavoidable response to security threats. Branding political opponents as “terrorists” is a simple and very effective tool for achieving public deference. Finding the appropriate balance between individual rights and state responsibility for protecting the individual remains one of our great contemporary dilemmas.

A much more hopeful picture has emerged through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the 17 Goals, approved by world leaders in 2105. This document substantially observes human rights principles associated with social and economic development. This is most explicitly reflected in the Goals to eradicate global poverty and hunger by 2030, a significant advance on the tepid aspirations of the Millennium Development Goals.


Human Rights Watch World Report 2016
HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth explains how fears of terror attacks and refugee movements during 2015 have compromised standards of human rights protection

Cambodian Activists March Against Controversial NGO Law
from Radio Free Asia

more Human Rights briefings
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
International Human Rights Law
Women’s Rights in International Law
Refugee or Migrant Worker?
Rights of Refugees and Migrant Workers
Human Rights Law Enforcement
Rights-based Development
Source material and useful links

Comments are closed.

Switch to our mobile site