Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.
Central American migrants are seen inside an enclosure where they are being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, Texas on March 27, 2019. Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
Central American migrants are seen inside an enclosure where they are being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, Texas on March 27, 2019. Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

It is seventy-one years since nations came together to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with a vision to forge a more just world. However, previous champions of human rights are reneging on this common goal. These declining commitments globally will lead to more insecurity. Shortsighted actions—in response to concerns such as terrorism and surging migration—will cause far-reaching, long-term harm. To ensure our world is more secure, nations should renew their commitment to the centrality of human rights.

Forgoing Human Rights to Counter Migration

Over the past few years, the world has endured a wave of anti-immigration policies, practices, and sentiments across the world—particularly in places where the promotion of human rights used to take center stage.

In the United States, in late August, the Donald J. Trump administration proposed new migrant detention rules that would allow U.S. immigration authorities to detain migrant families indefinitely while judges consider applications for asylum. The proposed rules aim to replace the Flores settlement agreement [PDF], which imposes a twenty-day limit on migrant child detentions. The new rules would effectively harden an already contested position.

This follows a raft of new policies and practices aimed at curtailing immigration to the United States, primarily from Central and South America. The new policies have raised serious concerns about the ambivalence of the United States toward human rights. While legal challenges could force the government to rethink its harsh policies, success is not assured. The Trump administration’s decision to diminish human rights to slow migration is not unique. Australia already has mandatory detention with no time limit for what they call “unlawful” migrants, including children.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the marked increase in migration from the Middle East and Africa, including a surge in asylum seekers and refugees, continues to test where fundamental human rights stand in societies across the continent. The differing opinions among members of the European Union on how to address migration, and the related issue of integration, present a crucial challenge. Without coherent, consistent action, the fundamental rights of migrants [PDF] are sometimes ignored or overlooked. In South Africa, similar issues arise, and have often resulted in targeted violence against African and South Asian foreigners.

Foreigners as the Point of Weakest Political Resistance

Across the globe, populists and autocratic politicians have found that scapegoating foreigners helps them manipulate already existing socioeconomic and political fault lines to galvanize political support. It is a dangerous gamble that undermines the fundamental rights of migrants, but it has succeeded at the polls.

The defense of human rights for immigrants has been weak. European governments, for example, have focused their energies on stringent border control, targeting migrants and asylum seekers. A more effective approach would be to reassess the policies that have failed to integrate long-standing immigrant communities—never mind the newcomers—or to more effectively make the argument for why migration and human-rights-centric policies are in each nation’s interest. “Limiting migration on national security grounds is a short-term political fix that risks long-term national power damage—both ethical and actual,” says Matthew Herbert, a senior migration expert consulting for the Institute for Security Studies.

But migration is not the only area where human rights—both in foreign and domestic policy—are under threat.

Terror Will Not End Terrorism

In 2017, then newly elected British Prime Minister Theresa May argued that human rights were a hindrance to counterterrorism efforts. May, who previously served as the British home secretary responsible for the country’s counterterrorism policies, proposed changing the law to ensure that human rights don’t “get in the way.” Ironic, considering it was under Winston Churchill that the United Kingdom led the establishment of the Council of Europe and its human-rights-supporting mechanisms.

But her stance resonates, even today, with other world leaders. The Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recently called for “security before human rights” in the country’s fight against terrorism. This included broadening the definition of terrorism to conflate it with other crimes, which undermines certain freedoms.

Africa has learned the hard way that forgoing human rights to pursue counterterrorism actually stokes violent extremism. Heavy-handed government responses have served to encourage recruitment into terror groups: Cameroon and Nigeria, and even the Multinational Joint Task Force, with their actions against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin; Kenya and Somalia, and to a lesser extent Ethiopia and the African Union Mission in Somalia, in the campaign against al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa. Terror groups use the states’ violation of human rights to argue that their own cause is legitimate in fighting repression, exclusion, marginalization, and injustice. It is not coincidental that the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy recognizes “respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism.” However, recognizing human rights is one thing, observing, respecting, protecting, and promoting them is another altogether. It is here where the gap lies. Countries’ rhetoric is not matched with action.

Advancing Human Rights Could Get Tougher

The challenge, then, is to get countries to return to principles and work toward advancing human rights as truly universal. As governments find new (sometimes even innovative) ways to promote the rights of some while curtailing those of others, the answers could lie outside of government.

In his prologue to the 2019 World Report [PDF], Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth underscores that human rights are under increasing threat globally and previous beacons of good human rights governance have yielded to autocrats. However, he adds, others advocating for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are pushing back and strengthening righteous civil action.

In Africa, Roth highlights how pressure from civil society mounted and resulted in some African states finally persuading Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila to schedule elections. Kabila himself could not run, owing to constitutional term limits, and had for over two years chosen to cling to power instead of calling an election. In this time, Kabila used the power of the state to detain and assault pro-democracy activists. The eventual success of this civil society movement is only one example of many grassroots efforts, but it highlights a critical point: when states fail to protect and promote human rights, often it is left to citizens to push their government back in line.

Without a spirited defense of human rights, societies run the risk of damaging themselves from the inside out.

Policy Options

As democracy backslides and autocratic powers become more entrenched, all those committed to human rights within and outside of government should work together to renew the narrative on why strong human rights policies are needed now more than ever.

Governments must be reminded of (and themselves remember) the importance of maintaining national ethical foundations. Destroying them to counter current political or security challenges without appreciating the longer-term damage is shortsighted.

International organizations such as the African Union, European Union, and United Nations also need political courage to make the case for why promoting human rights, including in migration management and counterterrorism, is in the citizenry’s best interest. Migration should be “safe, orderly and regular,” maintaining the centrality of human rights as called for by the Global Compact for Migration.

Organizations should also contribute evidence-based research highlighting the significant contributions of human rights in advancing peace, sustainable development, and stability. The world will always be a better place to live with stronger human rights principles.  

Inclusive and open societies are imperative. With the worrying current trend toward curtailing human rights in the name of an as-yet-undefined “greater good” in countries that have long purported upholding human rights as a cornerstone, governments committed to human rights and civil society may need to do more.