The global rise of populists poses a dangerous threat to human rights. Human rights exist to protect people from governments. Yet today a new generation of populists is reversing that role. Claiming to speak for “the people,” they treat rights as an impediment to their conception of the majority will, a needless obstacle to defending the nation from perceived threats and evils. Instead of accepting that rights protect everyone, they encourage people to adopt the dangerous belief that they will never need their rights against an overreaching government claiming to act in their name.
The appeal of the populists 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. There is an increasing sense that governments and the elite ignore public concerns.
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. Truth is a frequent casualty. Nativism, xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, and misogyny are on the rise.
But if these voices of intolerance prevail, the world risks entering a dark era. We should never underestimate the tendency of demagogues who sacrifice the rights of others in our name today to jettison our rights tomorrow when their real priority—retaining power—is in jeopardy.
Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was a vivid illustration of this politics of intolerance. Sometimes overtly, sometimes through code and indirection, he breached basic principles of dignity and equality. He stereotyped migrants, vilified refugees, attacked a judge for his Mexican ancestry, mocked a journalist with disabilities, dismissed multiple allegations of sexual assault, and pledged to roll back women’s ability to control their own fertility.
Since assuming office, he has sought to undermine many of the checks and balances on executive power that might impede this agenda. Rather than answer critical media questions, he has called journalists enemies. Rather than simply disagree with a judicial ruling, he disparaged a “so-called judge” for having the temerity to rule against him. Rather than respect internal dissent, he has tried to sidestep or silence it.
The consequences are already being felt. Trump’s sweeping ban on travel to the United States, issued without any effort to tailor it to an actual terrorist threat, would impose enormous hardship on tens of thousands of people, mostly Muslims, whose visas would suddenly be worthless had the courts not intervened. His suspension and radical reduction of refugee admissions to the United States will be felt by many of the world’s most helpless people. His threatened deportation of undocumented migrants—anyone who entered the United States unlawfully would qualify—could uproot millions of people with deep family and community ties. And he is substantially cutting back on the procedures that allow migrants to cite those ties in an effort to avoid deportation.
We see a similar scapegoating of asylum seekers, immigrant communities, and especially Muslims in Europe. Leading the charge have been Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, but there are echoes of these arguments of intolerance in the Brexit campaign, the rhetoric of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, and far-right parties from Germany to Greece.
Throughout the European continent, officials and politicians harken back to distant, even fanciful, times of perceived national ethnic purity, despite established immigrant communities in most countries that are there to stay and whose integration as productive members of society is undermined by this hostility from above.
If the voices of intolerance prevail, the world risks entering a dark era. We forget at our peril the demagogues of yesteryear—the fascists, communists, and their ilk who claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual. 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. Such claims of unfettered majoritarianism, and the attacks on the checks and balances that constrain governmental power, are perhaps the greatest danger today to the future of democracy in the West. They threaten to reverse the accomplishments of the modern human rights movement.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’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, whether to build over a park in central Istanbul or to amend the constitution to permit an executive presidency. In the past year, he 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 Gulen 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.
There was broad cross-party support for Erdogan’s government in the wake of the coup, given the collective sigh of relief that many in Turkey felt after the attempt failed. But with the precedent of repression established, and the independence of the courts and other institutions of law decimated, there was nothing to stand in the way of Erdogan’s widening crackdown.
Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi underwent a similar evolution. Unhappy with the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood under president Mohamed Morsi, many Egyptians welcomed the military coup that Sisi led in 2013. But he has proceeded to rule far more repressively than even the long dictatorship of president Hosni Mubarak that was overthrown during the brief Arab Spring. Many Egyptians assumed that only Islamists would be targeted, but Sisi has overseen the radical closing of political space, with human rights groups, independent media, and opposition political parties all shut, and tens of thousands of prisoners held, often after torture and with little if any judicial process.
The rising tide of populism in the name of a perceived majority has paralleled a new infatuation with strongman rule. If all that matters are the declared interests of the majority, the thinking seems to go, why not embrace the autocrat who shows no qualms about asserting his “majoritarian” vision—self-serving as it may be—and subjugating those who disagree?
But the populist-fueled passions of the moment tend to obscure the longer-term dangers to a society of strongman rule. President Vladimir Putin, for instance, has presided over a weakening Russian economy plagued by massive crony corruption. Fearing popular discontent, he has introduced draconian restrictions on assembly and expression, imposed unprecedented sanctions for online dissent, and crippled civil society groups, while embarking on various military adventures to change the subject from dwindling economic prospects at home. Military action in Ukraine prompted Western sanctions that only deepened economic decline.
China’s President Xi Jinping has embarked on a similar path of repression. China enjoyed remarkable economic growth as earlier leaders freed the Chinese people economically from the whims of Communist Party rule that had brought the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. But economic liberalization was not accompanied by political reform, which was left stillborn in the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Ensuing governments made economic decisions guided mostly by the party’s desire to sustain growth at any cost in order to keep popular discontent under wraps. Corruption flourished while social inequity soared and the environment deteriorated. Worried as well that popular discontent would rise as economic growth slowed, Xi, too, has embarked on the most intense crackdown since the Tiananmen era, leaving his government even less accountable. Despite anointing himself with a lengthening list of leadership titles, this strongman looks increasingly fearful, while not delivering on the Chinese people’s demands for cleaner air, safer food, a just judicial system, and an accountable government.
Similar tendencies have characterized other autocrats’ rule. The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, initiated by the late president Hugo Chávez and now stewarded by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has become an economic disaster for the worst-off segments of society whom it ostensibly serves. Even supposed models of authoritarian development like Ethiopia and Rwanda are plagued upon closer examination by government-imposed suffering. The Ethiopian government forced rural farmers and pastoralists into service-deprived villages to make room for agricultural megaprojects. The Rwandan government rounded up street vendors and beggars and beat them in filthy detention centers in the name of clean streets.
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 former U.S. 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 hope that emulation of the populists might temper their ascendancy when in fact it only reinforces their message.
The best way to counter populist trends is by vigorous reaffirmation of human rights. Governments committed to respecting human rights serve their people better by being more likely to avoid the corruption, self-aggrandizement, and arbitrariness that so often accompany autocratic rule. Governments founded on human rights are better placed to hear their citizens and recognize and address their problems. And governments that respect human rights are more easily replaced when people become unhappy with their rule.
Ultimately, responsibility lies with the public. The demagogues traffic in casuistry, building popular support by spinning false explanations and cheap solutions to genuine ills. The best antidote is for the public to demand a politics based on truth and the values on which rights-respecting democracies have been built. Populists thrive in a vacuum of opposition. 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.
Lies do not become truth just because they are propagated by an army of Internet trolls or a legion of partisans. Echo chambers of falsehoods are not inevitable. Facts remain powerful, which is why autocrats go to such lengths to censor those who report inconvenient truths, especially about human rights abuse. So we all have a duty to assert the truth against those who prefer a post-truth era.
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 a 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. We all have a duty to reaffirm the basic values of human rights.
Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Follow on Twitter @KenRoth.