What Putin’s supposed “death” of liberalism means for human rights

Casla_July17This article was published first in Open Global Rights

If Putin was right, and liberalism is dead, what would be the future of human rights in global politics?

In an exclusive interview with the Financial Times, the Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said that “the liberal idea” hegemonic in the second half of the 20th century has “outlived its purpose”. The election of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro and, one should assume, his own presidency would support this conclusion. “Liberals cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades”, Putin said.

Putin’s idea of liberalism is a convenient caricature. He appears to label as “liberal” any issue he feels strongly against: the rule of law, LGBTQ rights, the Refugee Convention, gender equality, to name a few.

That the Russian President has his own agenda, and that this agenda does not include the international promotion of human rights, cannot surprise anyone. But this interview raises an important question: What would be the fate of the international human rights regime in a world not guided by liberal parameters?

International human rights emerged and evolved in a world first defined by a cold war and later by what Francis Fukuyama thought would be the definitive ascendancy of liberal democracy. This was a world of Western hegemony where European countries played a very significant role in defining the rules of the international society, as superbly documented by Martti Koskenniemi.

Of course, this does not mean that human rights are necessarily a Western or a European idea, neither does it suggest that European countries have an impeccable record in human rights. Reports from NGOs and international human rights bodies give a persuasive account of the opposite. However, one can say that, geographically and temporarily speaking, the international institutionalisation of human rights is rooted in Europe.

Vladimir Putin is not the first one to posit that the rules of the game are changing or about to change. We are living a historical juncture of shifting tectonic plates with rising nationalism in the global North, ever growing power in the global South and a declining presence of Europe in global affairs. We are entering into a “no-one’s world” (Kupchan), a “multiplex world” (Acharya) of “decentred globalism” (Buzan and Lawson) with no more superpowers. Instead, we have multiple regional powers, a world of increasingly dispersed power and perhaps receding opportunities to forge global consensus.

The conditions under which the international human rights system grew up do not exist anymore. By itself this is neither good nor bad, but unpacking the factors beneath the legal recognition of human rights is essential if we want to maintain and raise the position of humans in future global politics.

History shows that Western European countries played a significant role in promoting international human rights law. But, as I argue in my recent book Politics of International Human Rights Law Promotion: Order versus Justice, this does not mean that they did so because they believed it was the right thing to do for global justice.

Based on the moral unity of humankind and equal deservedness of all human beings, cosmopolitans argue that morality cannot be contained to communities separated by national boundaries. On the other hand, realists are sceptical about international law in general, and about international human rights law in particular, as they believe it is unwise to judge states’ actions from a moral perspective. Between these two disparate views, I formulate an alternative political explanation of the critical role of Western Europe in the evolution of the international human rights legal regime since the 1970s.

I argue that, considering the features and the constraints in the international system, international human rights law has grown in a battle for legitimacy between two poles. On the one hand, we have had a state-centric and order-based European notion of international society with a minimalist conception of human rights, deferential to the general principles of international law, including national sovereignty, Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and the idea that inasmuch as possible promises must be kept (pacta sunt servanda). On the other hand, we have a broader conception of human rights, inspired by global justice and advocated by civil society and independent bodies under the umbrella of the UN and other international organisations. While all actors spoke the same language, they contested the meaning of each other’s words.

International human rights law becomes a matter of political contention within certain institutional confines. The international human rights system, with its limitations and contradictions, is what we see when order meets justice, when order clashes with justice.

Understood as such, human rights are not the fruit of passion, but the fruit of tension: tension in the political space of legitimacy. It is a tension not between those who believe in human rights and those who do not, but between those who believe in human rights as a matter of order and those who believe in them as a matter of justice.

Those who do not believe in the idea of human rights in any significant way (order, justice, or a combination of both) are not part of the equation. The question that arises, then, is what we can expect to happen in a world where those who openly reject the idea of human rights in all its acceptations are in the driver’s seat.

Illiberal governments and demagogic politicians have not yet articulated a cohesive and homogenous alternative to the liberal international society. And in itself, the relative decline of Europe in global affairs is neither good nor bad. But those of us who attempt to maximise the power of human rights in global politics would do well to think critically and self-critically about the politics and dialectics of international human rights law promotion in recent decades.

Human rights are not an idea whose times has come. Or just like it came, we have to accept the possibility that the time could go. The defence of human rights can no longer be built exclusively or even principally on some immaterial and superior principles. I think human rights “people” could do more to pay attention to local identities and listen to the values and fears of those who are not yet in our camp, opening up to new ways of constructing the ideas of human rights. Just in case Putin is right, we ought to come up with politically savvy strategies that resonate with individuals’ material interests and non-universal values.


Poverty in the UK: The world is listening, but is the government?

Koldo Casla and Wanda Wyporska

This article was published first in Open Democracy

The UN has heard shocking findings about the level of UK poverty – but the response from government has been confused.

Last Friday, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, presented his report on UK poverty in front of the UN Human Rights Council.

Fourteen million people in poverty, one and a half million of them in destitution, proliferation of food banks, rising homelessness and rough sleeping, stagnant social mobility, closure of libraries and of bus lines in rural areas, local government funding cuts… In parts of our country more than half of the children are growing up in poverty. If you are a woman born in a deprived area you can expect to die younger than you would have done ten years ago. The poor have borne the cost of unfair taxes and social security cuts introduced since 2010.

All this, despite historically high employment levels. The conclusion is both clear and bitter: Cuts to public services do not work, and simply hurt far too many people. If the Government had meant to harm the British social fabric on purpose, their masterplan would not have had to look substantially different from what we have seen over the past decade.

The world’s fifth largest economy must do much better than this. But Friday was not about Mr Alston’s report. It was about the Government’s response. It is time neither for complacency nor histrionics. As pointed out by fifty UK civil society leaders in an open letter published last week, the Government needs to come up with far more responsible and constructive feedback than what they have been offering recently.

The UN Special Rapporteur came to monitor compliance with international human rights treaties that are binding upon the UK, and it is a general principle in international law that countries must act “in good faith” to comply with international treaties they have voluntarily subscribed to.

When Mr Alston made his report public on 22 May, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, said it was “biased”, “barely believable” and “a completely inaccurate picture of” the Government’s approach to tackling poverty.

A few days later, the Government added in its official response to the United Nations: “We regret the inflammatory language and overtly political tone of this report, and strongly refute the claim that the design and delivery of welfare reforms, including Universal Credit (UC), are deliberately punitive”.

Last Friday the UK delegation in Geneva simply referred to this written response, with no more comment (min 31:58).

However, only last month ago something rather odd happened at a in a parliamentary committee of one parliamentary committee. A senior civil servant acknowledged: “We did a fact check of the Special Rapporteur report, he made a lot of good points, a lot of it was factually correct; (…) in terms of the facts, austerity, cuts to local government funding (…) all of those things were really good points.” An opposition MP could not believe what he was hearing and turned to the visibly uncomfortable Minister, who added: “It was more the tone and some of the language used which I thought was unnecessary, but of course there are areas in there that I will be working with officials on”. So much for a biasedinaccurate and barely believable report.

A few days earlier, in early June, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said on BBC: “I don’t accept the UN Rapporteur’s report at all. I think that’s nonsense. Look around you. That’s not what we see in this country”. Poverty, deprivation and social exclusion are, of course, not the sort of things he sees from his windows in Downing Street. And that may be part of the problem. It would be helpful for the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and other Cabinet members to take a walk around the country and meet the people trapped in poverty, with no choice, with no freedom, the people that are most affected by the policies they have been implementing.

Those who spoke with Mr Alston in November were not under the illusion that their living conditions were going to improve massively as a result of his presence or his subsequent report. They thanked him for having come to them, instead of expecting it to happen the other way around. It was as if they were not used to that sort of deference from people of authority.

We did not expect the Government to U-turn in Geneva after a decade of ideological austerity. But it is an opportunity for a new Prime Minister. Not everything is about resources, and there’s something the Government could do right now. Get out and talk to people. Certain decisions would not have been adopted if the relevant ministers had spoken with those that are struggling the most in our society. For example, we are convinced the digitalisation of social services would never have been signed off. It is unrealistic to take for granted the confidence and the digital literacy of vast numbers of potential claimants of Universal Credit. “Digital by default” is simply unfit for purpose, and it would not have taken them long to realise that if they had made the effort.

Mr Alston concludes in his report that “key elements of the post-war ‘Beveridge social contract’ are being overturned” in contemporary Britain. Over 600,000 copies of Beveridge’s report were sold when it was published in the early 1940s. We wonder how many people will have downloaded Alston’s report for the UN in 2019; the world record number of submissions from all around the country, the media coverage and above all the testimonies of people that met with him give us reasons to be optimistic. We are witnessing an unstoppable movement to end poverty, fight inequality, preserve public services and champion human rights. Poor people, whether in work, unable to work or unable to find work that pays, deserve to be heard. Mr Alston’s verdict is out. It’s the Government’s turn now. The world is listening.

Continue reading “Poverty in the UK: The world is listening, but is the government?”

Philip Alston’s Austerity Report Must Be A Turning Point For Social Justice In Britain

Koldo Casla & Daniel Willis

Published in The Huffington Post first.

Professor Alston said “austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so”. We need a radical change to establish the sort of society we want to become.

Continue reading “Philip Alston’s Austerity Report Must Be A Turning Point For Social Justice In Britain”

The socio-economic duty: A powerful idea hidden in plain sight in the Equality Act

This article was published in Oxford Human Rights Blog.

Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 asks public authorities to actively consider the way in which their policies and their most strategic decisions can increase or decrease inequalities. I am talking about the socio-economic duty. However, successive governments since 2010 have failed to commence it, to bring it to life in technical terms, which means that public authorities are not technically bound by Section 1. Continue reading “The socio-economic duty: A powerful idea hidden in plain sight in the Equality Act”

Sustainable Development Goals in the UK: Not as rosy as the Government wants you to believe

Koldo Casla and Imogen Richmond-Bishop

This article was published first in Open Democracy.

In 2015, all 193 United Nations (UN) member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address the global challenges of our time, including human rights, inequality, poverty and climate change.

All countries, rich and poor, are expected to meet the SDGs. This July the UK Government is voluntarily reporting at the UN in New York on its progress on the implementation of the Goals. Whilst we have yet to see the final report, the Government has made public the preparatory Emerging Findings.

And not all that glitters is gold. Continue reading “Sustainable Development Goals in the UK: Not as rosy as the Government wants you to believe”

Britain’s cuts to social security breach international human rights law. It is time to invest in a fair future

downloadThis article was published in Open Democracy.

In accordance with international human rights law, countries must take concrete steps to the maximum of their available resources to fulfil economic and social rights progressively. This includes the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living.

In case of serious economic difficulties, countries can slow down, halt and even reverse some of the progress, but those measures must be time-limited, objectively necessary and proportionate, adopted after meaningful engagement with those most affected by them, they cannot be discriminatory, must mitigate inequalities and ensure that the rights of the most disadvantaged people are not disproportionately affected. These are the requirements of the human right principle of non-retrogression.

A briefing recently written by the social rights NGO Just Fair for the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee shows that tax and social security cuts since 2010 have not met the mentioned requirements of non-retrogression and therefore breach the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living. This means that the UK is infringing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Articles 9 and 11) and the European Social Charter (Articles 12 and 13), both of which have been voluntarily subscribed to by the UK. Brexit will not change that.

The briefing is supported by 15 local and national groups working on fair taxation, community engagement, workers’ rights, child poverty, equality and food security: Caritas Anchor House, Unison, Women’s Budget Group, Back To 60, Equality and Diversity Forum, Community Links, Sustain, Fair Play South West, Race On The Agenda, Taxpayers Against Poverty, Research for Action, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Tax Justice UK, The Equality Trust, and 4 in 10.

Tax and social security policies since 2010 have not been justifiable in terms of the goals they were meant to achieve (a), they have not been proportionate (b) and the effects have been discriminatory (c). The weight of local government funding cuts has fallen on people at risk of harm, discrimination and disadvantage (d), and benefit sanctions have been harmful and largely ineffective (e). Continue reading “Britain’s cuts to social security breach international human rights law. It is time to invest in a fair future”

Poverty in Britain: The power of the United Nations is in your hands

0_IBP_NEC_071118food_bank_09JPGKoldo Casla

This article was published in Newcastle’s Chronicle

A week ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, presented his preliminary report on UK poverty.

Not a UN official, Alston was appointed by the Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental UN body the UK is a member of, as an independent advisor to monitor poverty and human rights globally.

The Special Rapporteur visits countries and makes recommendations as part of his mandate. He requires an invitation from the government and he only visits two countries per year.

Alston and his team spent months reading a record number of written submissions from UK-based academics, civil society and individuals. No other mission from a UN independent expert had generated so much interest anywhere in the world. Continue reading “Poverty in Britain: The power of the United Nations is in your hands”