Human Rights

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.

“Fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world,” warned the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, at the opening of the 2018 session of the UN Human Rights Council. He reminded the Council that “a disregard and contempt for human rights” had provoked “the most devastating wars of the last 100 years.”

Evidence in support of such foreboding is not hard to find. 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 rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights, according to Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth warns that the rise of populist leaders in the US and Europe poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections

Statistics reinforce these reflections of senior campaigners. The total of 22.5 million refugees across the world in 2016 was the highest on record. The International Labour Organization published a disturbing report of modern slavery, revealing that over 40 million people were subjected to enforced labour or marriage in 2016, including 10 million children.

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, Uganda, Rwanda and China. The concept of civic space, fundamental to democratic rights, is threatened by many developing countries, rich and poor, which have enacted legislation clamping down on the activities of domestic NGOs.

A favourite pretext for these measures is the acceptance of foreign funding, perceived as a tool of western ideology to promote democracy and other freedoms unwelcome to autocratic governments. Examples include India and Cambodia.

Countries traditionally perceived as staunch defenders of human rights have by no means averted the global trend. The Edward Snowden revelations of 2013 exposed the US and UK spy agencies for their disregard of privacy in access to personal digital material. The slide in global standards is such that only 22 countries, just 2% of the world’s population, are successful in protecting “open” civic space, according to Civicus, the international alliance of civil society organisations.

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.

Promoting Justice and Human Rights – Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reflects on his four years of serving the cause

A much more hopeful picture has emerged through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the 17 Goals, approved by world leaders in 2015. 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.


more Human Rights briefings (updated March 2018)
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
International Human Rights Law
Women’s Rights in International Law
Human Rights Law Enforcement
Rights-based Development
Source material and useful links