As I prepare to leave Chatham House, after fifteen years as director, my thoughts—sparked also by recent events—inevitably turn to the changes to the international system in the past decade and a half. One of the main changes has been to the liberal values that have underpinned international and regional human rights regimes, which is the central theme of this book.
Beyond its timeliness, what sets this book apart is its comprehensiveness. The chapters that follow trace many of the multiple factors undermining rights regimes, globally and domestically. Nationalism, renewed claims of national sovereignty over international collective commitments, and new technologies that grant unaccountable power to states are not exclusively the domain of illiberal states. Increasingly, democratic governments, including the original architects of the liberal system have become enablers in the dissipation of the international, regional, and national protections of human rights.
As a policy think-tank, Chatham House combines rigorous academic analysis with practical recommendations. This book’s chapters build on both the theoretical and day-to-day causes of weakening human rights commitments and practice to produce original policy recommendations to policymakers, activists, and academics for future action and research. The recommendations highlight the multidimensionality of the challenges and the responsibilities of stakeholders to rise to them. This book seeks to provide actionable proposals. They include the reframing of competition among global powers; reforming of the multilateral system; and adapting public debates to the threats of populist nationalism and the rise of new constituencies. Some of these are amenable to progressive human rights, some fundamentally oppose even to the funding, organization and the recruitment of human rights–focused international bodies. Many of those recommendations are in the conclusion—developed through Chatham House consultations with academic, policymaking, and activist networks—but they also conclude each chapter.
We need look no further than the recent developments in Europe to understand both the relevance and human urgency of this book. As we go to print, thousands of innocent lives are being lost in Ukraine. The invasion and its human consequences provide a clear example of what happens when a leader believes he (or she) is unconstrained by any political checks and balances, independent media, or civil society, and the state narrative is validated by official and social media state propaganda and disinformation.
But if Vladimir Putin’s actions demonstrate the costs of unaccountable leadership, the international reaction has exposed the willingness of a growing international bloc to countenance the violation of international norms—or at least to not stand up in their defense. Forty-five countries abstained in the UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s action, including major democracies like India and South Africa. And only thirty-nine countries have imposed sanctions on Russia to signal their opposition to its actions.
This reflects, to a large extent, the sense of Western double standards about human rights that the Ukraine invasion raises in many parts of the world. Where were U.S. and European concerns about human rights when Basher al-Assad was massacring his own citizens, including with the use of chemical weapons? And are these same governments sufficiently concerned about the disastrous impacts that their sanctions on Russia, as well as Putin’s war, are having on global food and other commodity prices and, therefore, on the human rights of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people? For these reasons, one of the central aims of this book is to build on the views and analyses of scholars and activists from the Global South.
Ukraine is a microcosm of the central theme of this book. Liberal democracies and the world’s main multilateral institutions are now on the defensive. Their leaders have believed—consistently—that the purpose of international order is to provide a secure, external framework for the protection of their citizens’ individual human rights and, at the same time, to create an environment in which these rights could and would be extended to others around the world.
What lies at the core of the definition of human rights in a liberal democracy is the right and the ability for individuals to lead a life of liberty and opportunity, without abuse by the powerful or dominance by the majority. It is the job of government to provide the institutional framework and policies to deliver these human rights for their citizens. In doing so, they must balance absolute human rights with the responsibility that individuals carry for the welfare of others in human society—in other words, the pursuit of one individual’s or group’s human rights should not undermine the rights of others. These tenets are defined and underlined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As this book reveals and explains, the tide has now turned for three reasons. First, the rise of China under the Communist Party of China (CPC) has offered an alternative path to politicians around the world. The CPC believes that it has the lead responsibility for delivering individual economic rights, which trump citizens’ individual and collective political rights. As the guarantor of state sovereignty and security, the CPC believes it is and should be domestically unchallengeable. The CPC is offering a model that others may try to emulate. And it is incentivising others to prioritize central political and economic control by offering large amounts of foreign aid and investment to governments around the developing world. Unfortunately, corrupt politicians like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Najib Razak in Malaysia used Chinese financing to help entrench their political power while undermining human rights in the process.
Second, technological advances in digital communications have, so far, facilitated these efforts to centralize political control, with China again both leading the way and facilitating others, from Central Asia to sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf States. The fact is, whether autocratic leaders fail or succeed in delivering economic progress to their citizens is not the point; their priority is always the same: not to relinquish power.
Third, since the mid 2000s, the upholders of the UN Declaration have become increasingly ambivalent about supporting the principles they had previously championed. The two main reasons are simple: first, the failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have deeply embedded strategic caution among Western policy communities over pursuing or tying foreign policy goals to ill-defined or far-reaching liberal ideals; and second, the failed Arab uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, and, eventually, Syria. We also saw Barack Obama shy away from and Donald Trump openly deriding international democratic activism.
At the same time, Western governments have had to contend with the deep unhappiness of their own populations in the wake of unchecked globalization, the financial crisis and the austerity that followed, and now the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Managing the political fallout from these trends and events has meant a concentrated period of trying to put their own houses in order, coinciding with the rise of parties offering some of the same simplistic populist answers as their autocratic counterparts.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reunited the liberal democracies in defense of their political systems, as well as of their sovereignty. But, with the leaderships in Moscow and Beijing convinced of the interconnection between strong central political control and the future of their own sovereignty, multilateral institutions have become battlegrounds between two antithetical approaches to human rights, one prioritizing the state and the other the individual. But this long overdue reform of international and regional human rights norms and institutions is not a fight that Western states of the developed North should confront or address alone.
The deepening divide between these two systems is eroding the operation of multilateral institutions, not only the political ones, such as the UN’s Security Council and Human Rights Council, but also the economic ones, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). The sense in democratic capitals is that autocracies are using trade and investment to embed autocracy, rather than use economic development as the stepping stone to greater political openness.
Unfortunately, so far in response, officials in Europe and the United States have focused on narrower issues. Key among them has been the economy. One of the principal forums that has brought together these like-minded countries has been the informal Group of Seven (G7). As an economic grouping, however, its members (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are more invested in facilitating favored treatment for production and investment in each other’s markets and those of Western-allied Pacific allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—what Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has termed, “friend-shoring”—and of constructing closed supply chains to guarantee access to critical technologies at a time of growing geo-economic competition, than they are in strengthening global rules.
As necessary as these defensive steps might be, ultimately, as a select grouping of developed economies, the G7 cannot be the proper forum for addressing the growing challenges for human rights defense and demands to upgrade its frameworks. Many of those demands have come from the Global South. Their absence in a select group of potential reformist states indicates the lack of effective forums for addressing the issues discussed in this book.
The best that can be hoped for in this context is that liberal democracies do not give up on external engagement with countries whose systems of governance remain in flux. This means sustaining diplomatic and economic relations even with autocratic governments, so long as they are not exporting autocracy or actively seeking to undermine other democracies. It will also mean democracies cultivating constructive relations with their more autocratic partners, but within clear boundaries that do not empower leaderships that abuse human rights. Hopefully, this will buy time for liberal democracies to become, once again, role models for inclusive economic development that others might want to emulate. It will also afford time to reengage the Global South in the inclusive reforms required to strengthen and improve international human rights, away from the efforts by China and Russia to bend or break them to their autocratic interests.
As I conclude my tenure at Chatham House and assess the state of international affairs today, I can’t help wondering if, with more foresight, the process of strengthening human rights conventions by making their new design more inclusive should have started ten or even twenty years ago. But I am confident that this timely book will reenergize the discussion on international human rights, and how to shore up the system of liberal values that underpins them, for years to come.
Sir Robin Niblett, KCMG, Director and Chief Executive Officer, Chatham House (2006–2022)