After the atrocities of the Second World War, human rights protections were established and given life through newly formed international organizations and treaties: the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); the Geneva Conventions normalized and codified international human rights protections; and so began an era of substantial progress in international law and activism. This progress is now under threat, as entire religions and ethnicities face exclusion from fundamental protections under newly elected populist governments and burgeoning populist movements. Thus, the next few years will lead to either a great push to secure human rights in an increasingly diverse Western society or the imprudent dismantling of the aforementioned progress.
The current rise of populism threatens human rights by forging an “us against others” narrative, which has been used to capitalize on widespread anxiety about technological change, economic globalization, and growing inequality. Sweeping electoral wins in 2016 culminated with the election of President Donald Trump who used crude language steeped in nativism throughout his “Make America Great Again” campaign. He promised to grow American jobs, avoid cultural change, and secure the United States borders against terrorism and illegal immigrants while at the same time turning the anxiety of many Americans into hatred by creating scapegoats of migrants, refugees, Muslims, and journalists.
Creating “others” within a society sets the groundwork for discriminatory laws and policies. One of the fundamental human rights is the freedom from discrimination, which provides a structural base upon which all other human rights can be built. Unfortunately, discriminatory policies—including President Trump’s promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and his executive order prohibiting almost all people traveling from six Muslim-majority countries and all refugees from entering the United States—are already threatening human rights and violating international law. These actions break multiple international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Refugee Convention, and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Increased nativism has not been confined to American politics, but has also been gaining increased political support across Europe. In early 2016, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party openly promoted a nationalistic and pro-Catholic agenda while enacting several discriminatory measures targeting Jewish, LGBTQ, and other minority communities. In Austria, presidential candidate Norbert Hofer campaigned on an anti-immigration agenda resulting in the highest national result for his nationalist Austrian Freedom Party. In 2017, right-wing populist political parties in the Netherlands, France, and Germany are poised for significant electoral gains through “de-Islamification,” anti-immigration, and anti-refugee platforms. All three countries have cited the election of President Donald Trump as a sign of the growing power of populism. If any of these countries elect right-wing populist leaders, it could ignite a huge shift in the European order.
First on the agenda of many right-wing populist leaders is the dismantling of the European Union, creating a huge setback for progressing human rights in the region. Human rights have been a cornerstone of the European Union since its founding. The legally binding EU Charter of Fundamental Rights holds all member states to the standards set forth by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). However, the FRA is struggling due to the rising fear of refugee populations seeking asylum. If right-wing populist gain power they will not hesitate to enforce discriminatory legislation in their countries, breaking international law and further dismantling international human rights structures.
Individually these human rights violations are concerning. Together, they create a dire situation, which goes well beyond a simple pattern of abuse to endangering the very structures designed to protect human rights. If the United States and Europe allow the normalization of discrimination, it will have an immediate negative effect on our international relations. Populist movements in other liberal democracies will feel empowered to adopt the same anti-human rights rhetoric and policies.
Resistance to right-wing populist legislation must come quickly and emerge from a strong cultural shift within countries. Progressive leaders not only need to show they understand the challenges citizens face, but also clearly outline the actual causes for economic and cultural challenges in their countries in order to move the narrative away from scapegoating marginalized communities. Ultimately, citizens and politicians must initiate a new narrative based on modern ideological solutions founded in human rights language, which can cut across political parties, gender, class, and ethnicity. Campaigns and policies with tolerant and multicultural values can push against the “Politics of Fear,” but it will take leaders initiating solutions, not simply reacting to current anti-human rights policies.
Savannah Fox is the Human Rights Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also a National Field Organizer at Amnesty International USA. Savannah earned her BA in International Relations and German from the University of South Carolina in 2011.