Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Human Rights Watch: The Politics of Fear is the World's Number One Threat

by Nomad

In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt famously told the nation that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Though the sources of fear may be different today, the effect is the same.

The Many Facets of Fear

An essay by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, explores what he sees as the root cause of many of the world's problems today: Fear.
Fear stood behind many of the big human rights developments of the past year. Fear of being killed or tortured in Syria and other zones of conflict and repression drove millions from their homes. Fear of what an influx of asylum seekers could mean for their societies led many governments in Europe and elsewhere to close the gates. Fear of mounting terrorist attacks moved some political leaders to curtail rights and scapegoat refugees or Muslims.
And fear of their people holding them to account led various autocrats to pursue an unprecedented global crackdown on the ability of those people to band together and make their voices heard.
The 2016 Human Rights Watch World report summarizes key human rights issues in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide. Globally, Roth explained in his keynote essay , the politics of fears impacts human rights policy in two different ways.

The report notes that, in last year alone, more than 800,000 asylum seekers and migrants arrived in Europe by sea with most traveling onward to northern and western EU countries.

A lack of resources in border countries of the EU - along with suspicions of political game-playing- has aggravated an already dire situation. Outside the EU border, the situation has reached critical mass, with nations unable to cope with or manage the influx. 

Indeed, the disorganized flood threatens the very stability of the EU.
The latest measures were controversial and very likely illegal. Worst of all, they are also doomed to fail.

With summer approaching- high season for escaping refugees- and with an EU deal with Turkey on the verge of collapse, many are expecting a new crisis this summer. Having tried and failed, there is much less enthusiasm for a renewed attempt.

Public Loathing and Political Backlash

At the same time, the threat of terrorism has provided many governments with a reason to turn their backs on the refugees in fear of allowing ISIS an opportunity to infiltrate Europe and the US in order plot attacks.  This is not a panicked over-reaction but a genuine fear of the public.  

This, in turn, has been a boost to right-wing nationalist groups in Europe with anti-immigration, anti-refugee views. Marie Le Pen of France's National Front Party, for instance, happens to lead in polls there.
Le Pen may be an intellectual compared to like-minded Donald Trump. Nevertheless her views appeal to popular sentiment in much the same way, particularly when it comes to immigration.  She famously said in 2012:
Tolerance? What does that mean? I am a very tolerant and hospitable person, like you. Would you accept 12 illegal immigrants moving into your flat? You would not! On top of that, they start to remove the wallpaper! Some of them would steal your wallet and brutalise your wife. You would not accept that! Consequently, we are hospitable, but we decide with whom we want to be.
Aside from the hysterical image of  wallpaper stealing and wife-brutalizing immigrants, Le Pen's message is also signaling a loss of national identity. 

The debate opens an assembly line of difficult questions. Such as, do the long-held traditions and the history mean nothing when it comes to a national identity? Do the French had the right to demand immigrants relish their own cultures as soon as they decide to stay? On the other hand, are French citizens suddenly supposed to devalue their national heritage in the name f diversity?

That's not something that is happening only in France. Through Europe and in countries of the West, including the US, the question has become: Should natural-born citizens to be given equal or fewer privileges than immigrants whose sense of identity is so radically different? Are there no obligations of assimilation? 

Ironically, the very thing that provides the cohesion we need to resolve these issues, mutual respect for human rights, is being eroded right before our eyes. It should be something we can all agree on.
Instead, it is the thing everybody is ready to abandon. 

The refugee crisis is a crisis of commitment for nations under tremendous stress.  How are we to interpret Article 14 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights which clearly states that "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." 
Are we supposed to abandon this principle altogether because this crisis? That's a difficult question to answer, made more difficult because of the lingering economic crisis and institutionalized inequality.

In a recent BBC interview, Pulitzer-prize winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen summed up the refugee panic. Nguyen is himself a former Vietnamese refugee to America.
Refugees and other kinds of immigrants - undocumented immigrants and so on - have become the scapegoats for some people's rage and fear. But that rage and fear shouldn't be directed at immigrants, it really should be directed at the structures of inequality that have led people in the United States to feel dispossessed.....
But it's frightening to look at structural inequality, so people would rather turn and blame these people who look different from them.
So we come full circle.. back to our fears. 

Fear as an Opportunity for Crushing Dissent

In a more subtle way, the politics of fear also offers a convenient excuse for already autocratic countries to crack down on their own citizens, "particularly the civic groups that monitor and speak out about those governments’ conduct."
Human Rights groups, the press, international watchdog organizations, and whistle-blowers have become the perceived enemy, part of a plot, or a terrorist network.

Consider a recent development In Turkey, where both leaders of the ruling party and one of the main opposition parties have advocated the stripping of citizenship of anyone engaged in or accused of assisting a terrorist organization.
Clearly that's a violation of Article 15
(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
This announcement is especially disturbing when, in so many countries, the definition of a terrorist or a terrorist organization is based primarily on the degree that person is a perceived threat to the ruling party, the autocrat or the oligarchy that follow in his/her wake.

In the name of fighting terror, in many countries in the world journalists are thrown into prison very much like spies, accused of aiding terrorist groups. Pointing out the disparity between the official version of events and the reality is hardly a terrorist act. Authors and academics are imprisoned simply for expressing their opinions and in no way, promoting or inciting violence.  

Likewise, other forms of dissent- including non-violent acts of civil disobedience- are increasingly met with harsh and brutal repression by the authorities. That includes tear gas, rubber bullets, police brutality, prosecution, incarceration and other forms of intimidation. 

This makes any attempt at accountability altogether impossible. And accountability (along with transparency) is the difference between representative government and a tyranny. 

But, there's a further hypocrisy involved, says Roth.
Autocrats favor restricting access to foreign donors for civic groups that monitor their conduct because they can dress it up with nationalist rhetoric: how dare those foreigners “interfere” in our internal affairs!

Yet the same governments that attack civic groups for seeking foreign contributions actively promote foreign investment and foreign trade deals. Many also eagerly solicit foreign aid to themselves and encourage it to service-delivery groups. And some engage in the same efforts to influence public debates abroad that they want to prohibit civil society from pursuing at home.
In effect, these leaders desire all the benefits of economic deals from Western nations without the accountability to their own people that should come with this windfall. 

In other words, drawing out all of the benefits of civilization without actually contributing to its solidity is, in fact, a form of theft. 

Fundamental Principles at Risk

In response, the usual retort is that human rights are fine for countries that can afford the luxury of them. There're a couple of problems with that view.

In 1948, when the UN Declaration on Human Rights was drafted, its founders realized that the only way to avoid egregious and blatant human rights violations in the future was to establish a universal standard to which all nations should uphold. It was to be a "universal" document in every sense.

A few countries- notably Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union- at that time became partial signees with objections duly noted. (In 1991, the Russian Constitution supposedly dismissed those Soviet era rejections.)

The human right charter was conceived to "to transcend previous regional and national principles" and therefore was by necessity designed to accommodate "every culture, every minority group and every religion around the world."

The most basic idea found in the Declaration of Human Rights is that these human rights are not based on the whims of respective governments, to ignore or qualify as they wish. These rights originate from simply as a result of being a part of our species on this planet. Or to put it in a different way, "self-evident" truth and "inalienable rights."

That much is clear simply by reading the first three articles.
Article 1.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.

Exceptions and special conditions cannot be imposed by governments, however, convenient that might be. Either a leader of a country respects human rights or doesn't. That's as true for the United States as it is for Russia, for Iran as it is for Germany. 

You could be lead to think otherwise but the Human Right Declaration is "a widely accepted global norm." Violations are the exception to that standard.

A Hallmark of Civilization

Yet, there are still some leaders who think human rights are only Western impositions placed on other countries as part of an imperialist agenda. In fact, these rights actually represent values and the fundamental principles of democracy.
They are also a hallmark of civilized societies.

The concept of human rights draws its very strength in its universality. Its broad mandate was meant to apply to all humanity, regardless of gender, religion, location or race.  

Widely considered one of the most influential contemporary scholars of international law and the foreign policy of the United States, Louis Henkin once wrote:
The rights of the Universal Declaration are politically and legally universal, having been accepted by virtually all states, incorporated into their own laws, and translated into international legal obligations.
Any roll-back- especially from Western nations- is an invitation for a complete breakdown of all human rights obligations around the world. Without some structure- some grounded foundation- there's nothing to prevent the world from descending into chaos.

That's going to be a very unpleasant and a very fearful world to live in.