Photo Source: © Project Syndicate
Photo Source: © Project Syndicate

Revitalizing the Struggle for Human Rights

9 December 2022

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect’s International Advisory Board Chair, Professor the Hon. Gareth Evans, wrote the following article for Project Syndicate.

Following the progress made toward recognizing and protecting human rights in the twentieth century, the past two decades have brought the return of authoritarianism, war, and all the rights violations that come with them. For governments, international organizations, and advocates, new realities demand a new narrative.

THE HAGUE – This century has not been kind to human-rights optimists, with 2022 being no exception. Many gains in the recognition and protection of the universal rights recognized in the post-World War II and post-Cold War years have stalled or been eroded. Russia’s criminal behavior in Ukraine is but the most recent example of a broader trend – made even more shocking by Russia’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which exists to uphold the very principles of international law that the Kremlin is now so brazenly violating.

Looking back, the high-water mark for human rights in the last two decades may have been the 2005 UN World Summit, when more than 150 heads of state and government unanimously embraced, as a universal principle, the concept of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P) populations against genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. We have had little to celebrate since then, as many recent surveys demonstrate. In every year since 2006, Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report – which scores every country against multiple indicators drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – has found more countries to be deteriorating, rather than improving, in their overall human-rights performance.

Similarly, The Economist’s most recent Democracy Index, which scores 167 countries on five selected indicators of political and civil rights, shows a steady decline every year since 2015, with more than one-third of the world’s population now living under authoritarian rule and just 6.4% enjoying full democracy. And the World Justice Project’s latest Global Rule of Law Index finds that two-thirds of the countries it surveys have slipped in their “fundamental rights” scores since 2015. Some of the most conspicuous recent declines in overall respect for the rule of law have occurred among its strongest traditional defenders – namely, in 13 of the European and North American countries surveyed.


All these reports clearly identify the most significant human-rights backsliders. They include not only longstanding authoritarian regimes like Russia and China, but also newly established autocracies like post-coup Myanmar, shameless promoters of “illiberal democracy” like Hungary, and also long-established genuine democracies – notably, the world’s most populous, India. Perhaps most troubling is the inclusion of the United States, the most self-conscious (and self-congratulatory) role model of them all.

One can find many explanations for this broad-based deterioration, and opinions will differ about their respective weight. But I think each of the following factors has made a significant contribution.

First, as the center of geopolitical power has shifted from West to East, the post-war US-led liberal international order has been increasingly challenged by China, whose breathtaking rise clearly owed nothing to respect for civil and political rights and democracy. Second, the US itself overdid its post- September 11, 2001, “war on terror,” both domestically and internationally. As former President Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes put it, these excesses were “repurposed by authoritarians elsewhere to target political opponents, shut down civil society, control the media, and expand the power of the state under the guise of counter-terrorism.”

Third, the “color revolutions” in several former Soviet republics and the initially successful Arab Spring uprisings may have given heart to democrats and human-rights defenders, but they also triggered a repressive backlash in many of those countries – and in their neighbors. Fourth, like the post-9/11 war on terror, the COVID-19 pandemic gave many governments cover to resort to excessive surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly, and arbitrary enforcement of those restrictions.

Fifth, deadly conflicts have been playing out across Africa and in Syria, Yemen, and now Ukraine following Russia’s legally and morally indefensible invasion. Wars inexorably bring with them atrocity crimes and other major human-rights violations. Sixth, and related, the arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers, as well as those crossing borders for more economic reasons, has fed illiberal sentiment.

Seventh, too many populist leaders have sought to stoke such sentiment by portraying national identity, or at least majority-group identity, as being threatened internally from people of different races, ethnicities, religions, or political beliefs. Eighth, at the same time, too many Western liberals have been overly dismissive of the “deplorables” who may not see that there are benefits for them in a globalized economy with rule of law and systems to advance and protect minority rights. As an academic colleague in Australia has put it, we should be examining the extent of our own complicity “in a system that may be viewed (rightly or not) variously as patronizing, unresponsive, over- promising, or empty-gestured.”

Ninth, rapidly evolving new technologies, including facial recognition surveillance, have diminished the sphere of privacy or autonomous space in most people’s lives. And, finally, the explosive growth of social media has accelerated and amplified the effects of nearly all these factors, including by siloing information sources, spreading disinformation, generating and reinforcing fear of others, and making it harder for ordinary voters to separate fact from fiction, and reason from emotion.


Although today is not the best of times, nor is it necessarily the worst of times. In the great arc of history, much now is immeasurably better than it was in the past. As Harvard University’s Steven Pinker reminded us in his brilliant 2011 overview, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, “customs such as slavery, serfdom, breaking on the wheel, disemboweling, bear- baiting, cat-burning, heretic-burning, witch-drowning, thief-hanging, public executions, the display of rotting corpses on gibbets, dueling, debtors prisons, flogging, keelhauling and other practices [have] passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable.”

Despite all the recent assaults on human rights, that evolution continues, with measurable progress worldwide toward abolition of capital punishment, decriminalization of homosexuality, and gender equality. The brave street protests by women in Iran are beginning to make a difference. Long- neglected issues like modern slavery are under the spotlight as never before; and momentum to establish an International Anti-Corruption Court reflects the major attention now being given to the scourge of high-level official malfeasance.

But even if things may not be as bad as they often seem, they are bad enough. They require deep thinking from those who make human-rights policy and influence human rights policymaking. They require us to regroup and reassess our strategy and priorities: what do we want to achieve, and how should we go about achieving it?

There are no magic bullets. As Martin Luther King famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Major change rarely comes quickly, and progress in recovering the ground we have lost over the last two decades is bound to be piecemeal and incremental. But catalysts for change can potentially come from multiple directions: top-down from strong leaders; laterally from strong peer-group pressure; and from the bottom up through community action that policymakers cannot ignore. Ideally, such pressure would come from all three directions simultaneously.

We would significantly advance the objective if all of us who have some capacity to make a difference were to embrace a common principled narrative. In this respect, I see eight core principles of action that ought to guide our analysis, our advocacy, and our modes of organization.

Embracing these principles will not be the whole story, of course, because ideas also must be translated into effective action. For present purposes, the point is to emphasize the need for a refocused human-rights narrative, and to argue that all such action would be more effective if underpinned by a common, consistently upheld set of ideas. As my colleague Simon Adams, former director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, has written: “Change comes from a combustible mix of ideas, institutions and individuals… Without powerful ideas (like the universality of human rights…) you cannot fundamentally reshape people’s views or inspire them to act.”


The first principle is to stress the universality of the human rights that matter most. It may be rhetorically convenient to speak about human rights in terms of national values – Australian values, Dutch values, American values – or of “shared Western values.” But when it comes to persuading an international audience, and above all any non-Western audience, such language is dead on arrival. It comes across as patronizing and irritating, and is manifestly counter-productive. Better to get into the habit of speaking consistently, everywhere, in terms of universal values and universal rights. I have never found such language a hard sell in any domestic context.

Moreover, the core conceptualization of human rights is not unique to Western culture. It is at the heart of every one of the world’s major ethical traditions, both religious and secular. There are many different approaches to moral reasoning, but as the philosopher Derek Parfit described it, defenders of different approaches are “climbing the same mountain on different sides.” And what drives them all is the recognition not of a national but a universal value, the reality of our common humanity.

The second principle is to stress the indivisibility of human rights. There have always been obvious conceptual differences between civil and political rights on one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other, as embodied, respectively, in the two great International Covenants of 1966. The most obvious difference is that the full protection of civil and political rights can almost invariably be achieved simply through the exercise of political will, whereas providing for economic, social, and cultural rights will almost always require the allocation of financial and physical resources, which may be beyond the capacity of even the best-intentioned government to deliver.

But this difference should not obscure the reality that the full enjoyment of both sets of rights is essential to recognizing and respecting our common humanity. Governments in the Global South have always given priority to economic and social rights, because they are conscious of how many of their people have grievously lacked them. Policymakers in the Global North, by contrast, have tended to see the issue primarily through the lens of civil and political rights. But if we in the North want more respect from the South for “our” rights, we will have to show a greater commitment to “theirs.” If we are going to bridge the divide, those on both sides will have to think and speak the language of indivisibility.

The third principle is to act consistently. If national leaders want their human-rights advocacy to influence their international counterparts, they must practice what they preach. Everyone hates a hypocrite. The US, especially, must be cautious here. With its money politics, unrestrained gerrymandering, political suborning of the judiciary, and too many shameless politicians putting party or personal interest first, America is now less a Mecca for the world’s democrats than an embarrassment.

Fourth, policymakers should recognize that advancing human rights is not just a moral imperative but a hard-headed national interest. Those who shape foreign policy too often think of national interests only in terms of security and prosperity. But every country has a third national interest: to be – and to be seen as – a good international citizen that does everything it reasonably can to alleviate other people’s suffering, even if there is no direct or obvious security or economic benefit to be derived from doing so.

Being, and being recognized as, a good international citizen can generate hard-headed, practical national advantages of the kind that appeal to realists as well as idealists. Selfless international behavior does not just give a country a warm inner glow. It yields reputational and “soft power” returns, including from the inclination toward reciprocity that such behavior generates. When countries come to the negotiating table with a cooperative mindset, rather than a wholly self- interested one, collective problem-solving is more likely to succeed.

Of course, politics in all our countries is a cynical trade. It is a business that often shows little tolerance for embracing what cannot be packaged in terms of hard-headed national interest. But this is a challenge that human-rights advocates can readily meet.


The fifth principle is to be pragmatic. There is always a risk in being too absolutist with respect to one’s causes. Reality is messy, and it very often intrudes. A classic example is resolving deadly conflict, where there can be tension between the objective of peace and the objective of justice. Purists, like my friend Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, argue that there is no tension at all: for those guilty of waging aggressive war (and often perpetrating atrocity crimes along the way), there can be no question of impunity. If any kind of justice can be meted out, it must be. The only sustainable peace is a just peace.

But it is not always so simple. Sometimes, amnesty or asylum deals really can avert hideous consequences. For example, Nigeria’s grant of asylum to the murderous Liberian leader Charles Taylor in 2003 unquestionably averted thousands of deaths that otherwise would have occurred in the final looming battle in Monrovia.

What happened next should give us pause for thought. Succumbing to immense international pressure, not least from the US, Nigeria handed Taylor over, through Liberia, to be tried and convicted in the Sierra Leone Special Court, even though he had breached none of his asylum conditions. Zimbabwe’s longtime dictator, Robert Mugabe, then became obsessed with the Taylor case, which he saw as a preview of what would happen to him if he ever accepted an agreement to exit office gracefully. As a result, he refused such offers for years, and Zimbabweans suffered grievously as a result.

To be sure, I don’t think I have ever been as cynically pragmatic as former US Secretary of State James Baker, who once said, in the context of an argument we were having about nuclear disarmament, “Well, sometimes, Gareth, you just have to rise above principle.” But tough compromises are sometimes inevitable in public policymaking if you want to be productive.

Pragmatism also demands that you refrain from activity that is manifestly counterproductive to the interests of those you are seeking to help. A preference for quiet, rather than noisy, diplomacy is not always a cynical cover for governments’ efforts not to make waves. One example etched in my memory may have been Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s determination, in the face of a strong and very public Australian campaign, to proceed with the executions in 2015 of two Australian nationals convicted of drug trafficking.

The sixth principle is to be temperate. I have long believed that too many human-rights activists overuse the “g-word.” There are situations – such as China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang – where clear evidence of crimes against humanity may fall short of proving genocide under the very narrow legal definition used in the 1948 Genocide Convention and in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). That definition calls for proof of “an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”

It’s not just “intent” that is at issue here. Because the Khmer Rouge’s victims were targeted on political grounds, rather than as members of a racial, ethnic, or religious group, even the most horrendous modern atrocity crime of them all, the murder of nearly two million Cambodians in the 1970s, does not technically count as a genocide.

The genocide label is always tempting rhetorically. But after the lawyers have finished splitting legal hairs, the use of the term can hand unearned propaganda victories to those with heavy cases against them for war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or other crimes against humanity. That is exactly what happened in 2005 in relation to Darfur, when the Sudanese regime triumphantly claimed vindication after a UN commission found that genocidal intent probably could not be proven – even though charges of major crimes against humanity and war crimes most certainly could be. Far better to use the g-word only with extreme care.


The seventh principle is to offer every possible form of support and encouragement to all those international and intergovernmental institutions with relevant human-rights protection and promotion roles, however ineffective they may sometimes seem to be, and however frustrating the process of multilateral diplomacy can be.

While China and Russia peddle the notion that these institutions – like the wider rules-based international order – are creatures of Western global hegemony deserving of no contemporary respect, such claims are historically inaccurate and morally suspect. The Soviet Union was present at the creation of the UN and its Charter, and in all the various negotiations for the Geneva Conventions and Protocols that the Kremlin now is disgracefully violating. Russia must be held to account for breaking rules Russians themselves have written.

As to specific key institutions, the ICC has disappointed some expectations, securing only ten convictions in its 20 years of operation. But its very existence has encouraged better behavior, arguably spurring, for example, a domestic inquiry in Australia into alleged war crimes committed by some of our special forces in Afghanistan. The ICC also has encouraged an unprecedented collation of evidence about atrocities in Syria, and the Court is currently investigating thousands of potential war crimes cases in Ukraine. Similarly, the International Court of Justice, which adjudicates cases involving states rather than individuals, has been the vehicle for an important The Gambia- initiated genocide action against Myanmar.

Other executive agencies in the international system have been getting on with their jobs, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with its relentless advocacy on behalf of the millions displaced by war, atrocities, and domestic persecution. While the Geneva-based Human Rights Council has struggled to rise above the self-interested politics of too many of its members, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights silenced many critics with its report this year calling out likely crimes against humanity perpetrated by China against its Uyghur population. Moreover, some of the Geneva-based treaty bodies, like the Committee on the Rights of the Child, have started working on regional outreach programs designed to improve their visibility and effectiveness.

The major global deliberative bodies can be important vehicles for generating peer pressure on misbehaving states, as the UN General Assembly did for many years with its condemnation of apartheid in South Africa. It remains to be seen how useful some of its recent such forays – such as its votes to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over Ukraine, and its refusal to credential the Myanmar military regime’s preferred ambassador – will be. But these efforts obviously should be encouraged.

The last of my eight principles is to stay optimistic. As discouraging as the international human- rights environment now seems, it is important to keep things in perspective. Pendulums swing, wheels turn, and presidents and prime ministers change. A far-right politician may win in Italy, but an even further-right one loses in Brazil. Binyamin Netanyahu rebounds in Israel, but in the US the noxious Donald Trump bubble at last shows signs of bursting.

It has been well said that the enemy of justice is not injustice; it is hopelessness. In public policy, as in life itself, outlooks can be self-reinforcing. Pessimists see conflict, horror, prejudice, and crude self-interest as more or less inevitable, and thus will adopt a wary and competitive approach to international relations and everything else they do. But for optimists of all stripes and colors, what matters is believing in and nurturing the instinct of cooperation in the hope that decent human values will ultimately prevail. If we want to change the world for the better, we must again believe in the possibility of positive change.

This article is adapted from the Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) 2022 Wellenstein Lecture delivered at The Hague.

Hon. Gareth Evans, International Advisory Board Chair


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