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.


Qué significa para los derechos humanos la supuesta “muerte” del liberalismo anunciada por Putin

Casla_July17Este artículo fue publicado en Open Global Rights en Español.

Si Putin tuviera razón, y el liberalismo hubiera muerto, ¿cuál sería el futuro de los derechos humanos en la política global?

En una entrevista exclusiva para el Financial Times, el presidente ruso Vladimir Putin recientemente proclamó que “la idea liberal” hegemónica durante la segunda mitad del siglo 20 “ha quedado obsoleta”. La elección de Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro y, es de suponer, su propia presidencia respaldaría dicha conclusión. “Los liberales ya no pueden simplemente ordenar nada a nadie como han intentado hacer en las últimas décadas”, afirmó.

La noción de liberalismo que maneja Putin es una caricatura a conveniencia. Parece calificar de “liberal” cualquier idea a la que se opone: el estado de derecho, los derechos LGBTQ, la convención de las personas refugiadas, la igualdad de género, por mencionar algunos.

A nadie se le escapa que el presidente ruso tiene su propia agenda, y que dicha agenda no incluye la promoción internacional de los derechos humanos. Ahora bien, esta entrevista plantea una pregunta fundamental: ¿Qué sería del régimen internacional de los derechos humanos en un mundo que no se rigiera por parámetros liberales?

El sistema internacional de derechos humanos surgió y evolucionó en un contexto inicialmente caracterizado por una guerra fría y más tarde por lo que Francis Fukuyama creyó que iba a ser el ascenso definitivo de la democracia liberal. Se trataba de un mundo de hegemonía occidental donde los países europeos definían las reglas de la sociedad internacional, como documentó brillantemente Martti Koskenniemi.

Naturalmente, esto no significa que los derechos humanos sean necesariamente un invento occidental o europeo, ni por supuesto que los países de este continente puedan alardear de una trayectoria intachable en la protección de los derechos humanos. Informes de ONG y de órganos internacionales de derechos humanos dan buena cuenta de lo contrario. Sin embargo, en términos geográficos y temporales podemos afirmar que la institucionalización internacional de los derechos humanos encuentra sus orígenes en Europa.

Vladimir Putin no ha sido el primero en plantear que las reglas del juego están cambiando o están a punto de cambiar. Estamos viviendo una coyuntura histórica de placas tectónicas en movimiento, con pujante nacionalismo en el Norte global, creciente poder del Sur, y una presencia menguante de Europa en los asuntos internacionales. Estamos entrando en un “mundo de nadie” (Kupchan), un “mundo multiplex” (Acharya) de “globalismo descentralizado” (Buzan y Lawson) carente de superpotencias. Se trata de un planeta con varias potencias regionales, donde el poder se dispersa progresivamente y en el que quizás cada vez contamos con menos oportunidades para forjar consensos globales.

Las condiciones en las que creció el sistema internacional de derechos humanos han cambiado. En sí mismo, esto no es ni bueno ni malo, pero si deseamos mantener y elevar la posición del ser humano en la política global del futuro resulta necesario desentrañar los factores que hicieron posible el reconocimiento legal de los derechos humanos.

La historia atestigua que los países de Europa occidental desempeñaron un papel protagonista en la promoción del derecho internacional de los derechos humanos. Pero, como sostengo en mi reciente libro Politics of International Human Rights Law Promotion: Order versus Justice, esto no significa que lo hicieran porque creyeran que era lo correcto para la justicia global.

Partiendo de la idea de la unidad moral de la humanidad y de la igualdad en dignidad de todas las personas, los cosmopolitas consideran que las cuestiones morales no pueden ser circunscritas a comunidades separadas por fronteras nacionales. Por otro lado, en la teoría de las relaciones internacionales los realistas son escépticos sobre el valor del derecho internacional en general, y del derecho internacional de los derechos humanos en particular, puesto que creen que es imprudente juzgar las acciones de los estados desde una perspectiva ética. Entre estos dos puntos de vista discordantes, formulo una explicación política alternativa sobre el papel determinante de Europa occidental en la evolución del régimen jurídico internacional de los derechos humanos en los últimos cincuenta años.

Teniendo en cuenta los rasgos y las limitaciones del sistema internacional, sostengo que el derecho internacional de los derechos humanos ha avanzado en una batalla por la legitimidad entre dos bandos. Por un lado, tenemos una noción europea de sociedad internacional estatocéntrica y basada en el orden, con una concepción minimalista de los derechos humanos y respetuosa con los principios generales del derecho internacional, incluyendo la soberanía nacional, el Capítulo VII de la Carta de las Naciones Unidas, y la idea de que en la medida de lo posible las promesas hay que cumplirlas (pacta sunt servanda). Por otro lado, se presenta una idea más amplia de los derechos humanos, inspirada por la justicia global y defendida por sociedad civil y órganos independientes bajo el paraguas de las Naciones Unidas y otras organizaciones internacionales. Si bien hablan el mismo idioma, los actores pugnan sobre el significado de las palabras empleadas por los demás.

El contenido del derecho internacional de los derechos humanos se convierte así en una disputa de carácter político dentro de determinados parámetros institucionales. El sistema internacional de los derechos humanos, con sus limitaciones y sus contradicciones, es lo que vemos cuando el orden se encuentra con la justicia o, mejor dicho, cuando el orden choca con la justicia.

Entendido de esta forma, los derechos humanos no serían tanto una fruta de la pasión, como una fruta de la tensión, tensión en el espacio político de la legitimidad. Se trata de una tensión no entre quienes creen en los derechos humanos y quienes no lo hacen, sino entre quienes creen en los derechos humanos como una cuestión de orden y quienes creen en ellos como una cuestión de justicia.

Aquellos que no albergan creencia alguna sobre los derechos humanos (ni como orden, ni como justicia, ni como una combinación de ambas) no participan de la ecuación. Si es así, ¿qué cabría esperar en un mundo donde quienes abiertamente se oponen a la idea de los derechos humanos llevaran las riendas?

Los gobiernos iliberales y los políticos demagogos todavía no han puesto negro sobre blanco una alternativa coherente y homogénea a la sociedad internacional liberal. Y en sí mismo el debilitamiento político relativo de Europa no es ni bueno ni malo. Pero quienes tratamos de maximizar el peso de los derechos humanos en las relaciones internacionales haríamos bien en reflexionar crítica y autocríticamente sobre la política y la dialéctica de la promoción del derecho internacional de los derechos humanos en décadas recientes.

No hay nada definitivo en los derechos humanos. No se trata de una idea cuyo tiempo ya llegó. O del mismo modo que llegó, deberíamos aceptar la posibilidad de que ese tiempo pudiera irse. La defensa de los derechos humanos ya no debería basarse exclusivamente o incluso principalmente sobre principios superiores e inmateriales. Quienes trabajamos sobre derechos humanos podríamos prestar mucha más atención a identidades locales y a valores y aprensiones de quienes todavía no están en nuestro bando, abriéndonos así a la posibilidad de reconstruir los derechos humanos de diferente forma. Por si acaso Putin tuviera razón, deberíamos desarrollar estrategias políticas habilidosas para responder a los intereses materiales y a los valores no-universales de la gente.

Continue reading “Qué significa para los derechos humanos la supuesta “muerte” del liberalismo anunciada por Putin”

Supreme Court of Spain: UN Treaty Body individual decisions are legally binding

angela pic womens linkThis article was published in EJIL: Talk!

The Spanish Supreme Court has established that the views expressed by UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies in individual complaints are binding on the State. The Court ordered Spain to pay €600,000 in compensation to Ángela González for the responsibility of its authorities in relation to the death of her daughter. Her daughter was murdered by her father in an unsupervised visit authorised by a judge. National courts dismissed Ángela’s case, but the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) found a breach of her human rights. The Supreme Court has now affirmed that the State must comply with the Committee’s decision. This article discusses the significance of the case and the principle established by it. Continue reading “Supreme Court of Spain: UN Treaty Body individual decisions are legally binding”

International human rights can help reverse yet another heavy blow on sexual and reproductive health

My Body My ChoiceThis article was published first in UK Human Rights Blog

Women’s sexual and reproductive rights are not safe and accessible in all corners of the United Kingdom.

Abortion is still a crime in Northern Ireland. Women who choose to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights have to travel to mainland Britain, but they have to face costs (about £900 in this recent case) that would not apply if they lived in England, Wales or Scotland.

By a majority of 3 to 2, the Supreme Court has ruled that, while this situation does in principle concern the right to enjoy a private and family life without discrimination (Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights), the difference in treatment is justified because the decision on this matter falls under the powers of the devolved administration of Northern Ireland (paragraph 20 of the Judgment). And therefore the human rights of women living in Northern Ireland are not being breached.

Well, international human rights bodies beg to differ. Continue reading “International human rights can help reverse yet another heavy blow on sexual and reproductive health”

International human rights bodies have said it loud and clear: We need clear targets to reduce child poverty

This article was published first by Huffington Post

The UK needs clear targets to reduce and eventually put an end to child poverty.

This is the purpose of a Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Dan Jarvis MP. The Bill places the duty on the government to set targets to limit both absolute and relative child poverty, to lay out a clear strategy, and to report to Parliament on progress made to meet the targets. The Bill intends to restore the benchmarks of the Child Poverty Act 2010, which were removed by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, the proportion of children in absolute low income (before housing costs) was 17% in 2014/15, substantially more than the 5% target of the Bill being discussed in Parliament. Furthermore, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted a 3-point rise in absolute child poverty between 2016 and 2020 as a result of planned tax and benefit reforms. Continue reading “International human rights bodies have said it loud and clear: We need clear targets to reduce child poverty”

Economic and social rights in the UK in 2016: A whole year under the UN spotlight… and more is coming

downloadThis article was published first by Housing Rights Watch

After nearly two years of evidence gathering and interaction with civil society and government officials, last June the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued its Concluding Observations on the extent to which UK authorities have been complying with international law on these rights.

To the government’s sorrow, the picture was bleak, but the report also included 60 very specific recommendations. For example, the Committee recommends making economic and social rights enforceable in court, just like civil and political rights are, without regressive changes to the Human Rights Act 1998. Authorities must adopt measures to address the deficit of affordable housing, particularly rental housing. The UK should review its fiscal policy to make sure that taxes provide the necessary resources to satisfy economic and social rights. The government must also enact Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that authorities have socio-economic equality in due regard when designing and implementing their policies. Decisive measures must be taken to eliminate the gender pay gap, and reduce the use of temporary and precarious forms of employment, such as “zero hour contracts”.  The Committee also expressed serious worries about the negative impact of welfare reforms introduced since 2012, in particular benefit cuts and freezes, the use of sanctions, and the disconnect between state benefits and costs of living.

These findings can only be explained if one factors austerity into the equation. The Committee expressed serious concerns about “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”. The Committee had seen the link between austerity and human rights retrogression before in the Czech Republic (2014), Slovenia (2014), Romania (2014), Portugal (2014) and Spain (2012). The connection had also been noted by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (2013).

2016 was a busy year for the UK government. The Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations in June, and so did the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in October. In September, the UN made public a joint letter sent to the UK government some months earlier by the Special Rapporteurs on Housing, on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on Extreme Poverty, and on the Right to Food, with specific questions about the compatibility of welfare reforms with international human rights obligations of the UK, and the report of the inquiry of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was published in October. This Committee stressed a series of concerns about the negative impact of austerity-led welfare reforms on the rights of people with disabilities.

UN human rights oversight does not end here. Every five years or so, countries are grilled for three hours in the UN Human Rights Council in what is known as the “Universal Periodic Review”. Next turn for the UK will be May 2017. We don’t know what sort of recommendations the UK will receive from other countries, but many organisations and coalitions, including Just Fair, have already made some suggestions. The joint report produced by the British Institute of Human Rights gathered information from 175 organisations, including Just Fair.

Ok, so the UN has spoken categorically, and more is surely coming in mid-2017. But what now?

The UK has voluntarily assumed the commitment to bring to live the rights proclaimed in international treaties. International human rights mechanisms provide advocacy opportunities, but they are only as effective as civil society makes them to be. Organisations and society at large must hold the government to account and demand policies that fulfil the human rights promise.

As soon as she entered into office, PM Theresa May promised that her government would “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” For now, however, apart from some minimal announcements in the Autumn statement in November, the government has not changed course from the austerity path initiated by Cameron and Osborne. The government has not reacted to the report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in its response to the inquiry report of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government ignored entirely the criticism of the deliberate and unjustified retrogressive measures of recent years.

Even in turbulent waters, there is room for good news. Following the lead of Scotland (since 2012) and Wales (since 2015), a bill is currently being discussed in Westminster Parliament that would create a new duty to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness in England, which would stop councils turning non-vulnerable single people away without any assistance at all. In November, the Supreme Court ruled on the human rights compliance of the so-called “bedroom tax” (or “spare room subsidy”), which essentially means the lowering of housing benefit for those living in social housing that is deemed to have spare bedrooms. The Court ruled that disabled adults who cannot share a room with another person should not have their spare room subsidy removed, and also that treating children and adults differently in this regard would breach Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on private and family life, and non-discrimination. The Scottish government is considering legalising the right to food in accordance with international human rights standards, and has also announced its intention to introduce a new socioeconomic equality duty on public authorities in 2017.

Brexit has taken the UK to an unchartered territory. We don’t know when and how the UK will leave the European Union, and we don’t know the effect that this may have for human rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular. But it is fair to say that the UK is not heading out in order to protect and promote economic and social rights better. At times of enormous political and social uncertainty, in Just Fair we will continue using the international human rights machinery in defence of human rights for all.

Koldo Casla

Policy, Research and Training Officer, Just Fair

Ecocide: the international crime that could have been but never quite was

This post was first published in NBXMain in October 2015

Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are international crimes and, since 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate individuals accused of having committed acts of that nature. From 2017, under certain circumstances the ICC will also have jurisdiction in relation to the crime of aggression. These are the four international crimes recognised in the Statute of the ICC. There was a time, however, when scholars, international bodies and even some government officials spoke about a possible fifth international crime: Ecocide.

Ecocide was a crazy idea promoted by a bunch of visionary/loony academics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Aware of the fact that human action was causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem, they argued that humanity as a whole could be considered to be the victim of premeditated forms of aggression against the environment.

The idea could have remained an exercise of academic engineering had it not resonated, even if mildly, in international political discourse. Most famously, the then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olaf Palme, said in his opening address of the 1972 Stockholm Conference on Environment:

”The immense destruction brought about by indiscriminate bombing, by large scale use of bulldozers and herbicides is an outrage sometimes described as ecocide, which requires urgent international attention.”  Continue reading “Ecocide: the international crime that could have been but never quite was”