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Opinion: The perils of populist leaders: How their rise threatens basic human rights in Europe

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Opinion: The perils of populist leaders: How their rise threatens basic human rights in Europe

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By Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

Human rights exist to protect people from government abuse and neglect. Yet today a new generation of populists is turning this protection on its head.

The appeal of these demagogues has grown with mounting public discontent over the status quo. In the West, many people feel left behind by technological change, the global economy, and growing inequality. Horrific incidents of terrorism generate apprehension and fear. Some are uneasy with societies that have become more ethnically, religiously and racially diverse.

In this cauldron of discontent, certain politicians are flourishing and even gaining power by portraying rights as protecting only the terrorist suspect or the asylum seeker at the expense of the safety, economic welfare, and cultural preferences of the presumed majority. They scapegoat refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities.

This dangerous trend threatens to reverse the accomplishments of the modern human rights movement. A growing number of people have come to see rights not as protecting them from the state but as undermining governmental efforts to defend them. In the United States and Europe, the perceived threat at the top of the list is migration. Encouraged by populists, an expanding segment of the public sees rights as protecting only these “other” people, not themselves, and thus as dispensable.

But if you sacrifice their rights today, you jeopardize your own tomorrow. When populists treat rights as an obstacle to their vision of the majority will, it is only a matter of time before they turn on those who disagree with their agenda.

Rather than confronting this populist surge, too many Western political leaders seem to have lost confidence in human rights values, offering only tepid support. Few leaders have been willing to offer a vigorous defense, with the notable exception, at times, of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and US President Barack Obama.

Some leaders seem to have buried their heads in the sand, hoping the winds of populism will blow over. Others, if not seeking to profit from populist passions, seem to wish that emulation of the populists might temper their ascendancy. British Prime Minister Theresa May denounced “activist left wing human rights lawyers” who dare to challenge British forces for torture in Iraq. French President François Hollande borrowed from the National Front playbook to try to make depriving French-born dual citizens of their nationality a central part of his counterterrorism policy, an initiative he later abandoned and said he regretted.

To counter these trends, a broad reaffirmation of human rights is urgently needed. The rise of the populists should certainly lead to some soul-searching among mainstream politicians, but not to an abandonment of first principles, by officials or the public.

In Europe, populists have sought to blame economic stagnation on migration, both to and within the European Union. Yet those who hoped to stop migration by voting for Brexit—perhaps the most prominent illustration of this trend—risk making Britain worse off economically.

No government is obliged to admit everyone who comes knocking at its nation’s doors. But international law limits what can be done to control migration. People seeking asylum must be given a fair hearing and, if their claims are found valid, a refuge. No one should be returned to war, persecution, or torture.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly dictatorial rule in Turkey illustrates the dangers of a leader trampling on rights in the name of the majority. For several years, he has shown diminishing tolerance for those who would challenge his plans. In the past year, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party used a coup attempt as an opening to crack down not only on the plotters he alleged had been associated with the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen but also on tens of thousands of others deemed to be his followers. A declared state of emergency became an opportunity to turn on other perceived critics as well, closing down much of the independent media and civil society groups.



A firm and timely response from Western leaders might have been expected, but other interests, whether curtailing the flow of refugees to Europe or fighting the self-described Islamic State, or ISIS, often stood in the way.

The rising tide of populism in the name of a perceived majority has paralleled a new infatuation with strongman rule. But the populist-fueled passions of the moment tend to obscure the longer-term dangers to a society of strongman rule. Putin, for instance, has presided over a weakening Russian economy plagued by massive crony corruption and a failure to diversify when oil prices were high, leaving it vulnerable to the decline that followed. Fearful that popular discontent of the sort seen on the streets of Moscow and several other large cities beginning in 2011 might revive and spread, Putin has sought to preempt it, introducing draconian restrictions on assembly and expression, setting out new, unprecedented sanctions for online dissent, and crippling civil society groups.

The Kremlin bolstered Putin’s autocracy and boosted his dwindling approval ratings by mobilizing public nationalism in support of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, which triggered European Union sanctions and only deepened economic decline. However, as the economy deteriorates further, it gets harder for Russian apologists to sell that message to the Russian public.

What is needed in the face of this global assault on human rights is a vigorous reaffirmation and defense of the basic values underpinning these rights.

Governments ostensibly committed to human rights must more regularly defend basic principles, whether at the UN or in their direct relations with other countries.

Ultimately, though, responsibility lies with the public. A strong popular reaction, using every means available—civic groups, political parties, traditional and social media—is the best defense of the values that so many still cherish despite the problems they face.

Values are fragile. Because the values of human rights depend foremost on the ability to empathize with others—to recognize the importance of treating others the way we would want to be treated—they are especially vulnerable to the demagogue’s exclusionary appeal. A society’s culture of respect for human rights needs regular tending, lest the fears of the moment sweep away the wisdom that built democratic rule.

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