Contesting regression: citizen solidarity vs. the decline of democracy

Human rights are confronting turbulent times with a decline of liberal democracy—but we have the potential to reconstruct rights by tracking the places and pathways where citizens are fighting back. Lisa Sundstrom summarizes the dilemma of challenges to rights and democracy from populism in the North and exclusion in the South, to a contested relationship between rights and politics, and an apparent gap between civil-political rights with economic rights and equity. Yet the social rights concerns that drive nationalism both North and South are precisely where rights are expanding. Further, the seeming disconnect with national democracy is politicizing rights in a positive direction, as we turn more to campaigning for global democracy and claiming rights in the private sphere.

By VOA (Марш женщин - в Вашингтоне и за его пределами) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

View of the Women's March on Washington from the roof of the Voice of America building - January 21, 2017.

Even where rights are on the rocks, in declining democracies with rising ethno-nationalism, citizen solidarity and resilient rule of law are still the best bet to contest regression. Australia, for example, is moving to close abusive off-shore camps for asylum-seekers after legal challenges, while Russian activists have secured European Court judgments against homophobic persecution. This year hundreds of thousands of citizens marched against surging authoritarianism in Turkey, while in India assassinations of religious minorities and dissidents by Hindu fundamentalists have been met with mass protests and a “Not in My Name” campaign. Even in Trump’s America, the Muslim migration ban has been rejected by US courts, the January 2017 nation-wide Women’s March was the largest protest in US history, and concerted citizen action for health rights turned back the attempt to abolish national health insurance.

Indeed, as the liberal social contract and cosmopolitan institutions falter at the expense of some rights, dynamic networks and new forms of globalization extend the range and reach of others. David Forsythe recently acknowledged the structural constraints of sovereignty, nationalism, social inequality, and double standards noted by Stephen Hopgood, Samuel Moyn, Eric Posner, and Emilie Hafner-Burton, among others—but he counters their distorted accounts of key human rights institutions and exclusion of transformative trends in the global South and grassroots campaigns.

"Human rights can move beyond the contested binaries of local and global, protection and empowerment."

Human rights can move beyond the contested binaries of local and global, protection and empowerment, and insiders and outsiders by introducing new voices, new rights, and new pathways to fulfillment. A recent collective analysis of the futures of human rights outlines several alternative scenarios for human rights: staying the course, pragmatic partnership, global “welfarism”, and sideshow. These alternatives correspond to reinforcing the existing human rights regime, incorporating different sets of states and constituencies, extending rights to social welfare and economic justice, or setting aside rights struggles in favor of other rubrics for mobilization. Alongside the promising middle options for expanding social rights norms and global partnerships, rather than scrapping the legalistic human rights system, constructive reformers advocate diversification of the institutional rights repertoire towards a “human rights ecosystem”. Along with checking state power to abuse citizens, that expanded repertoire must include power relations above and below the state—not included in the historic interstate human rights regime—and it must develop accountability for “private wrongs” such as labor abuse and gender-based violence.

Bridging claims such as rights-based development and environmental justice can enhance such connections. For example, the linkage between identity, dignity, and discrimination mobilizes marginalized groups, such as indigenous peoples, women’s movements, and rising rights promoters in the global South, in transformative campaigns such as the human right to water and sanitation. “Rights talk” can adapt by translating global norms into vernacular issues like health rights to build local support. Emerging transnational movements craft and bridge frames that appear to improve national responsiveness—like the term “femicide”, which has generated legislation and programs throughout the Americas. The human rights regime expands to demand broader responsibilities from perpetrators above and below the state. From above, we see the uneven but consequential establishment of indigenous rights to prior informed consent for international development projects; from below, the spreading doctrine of the state’s “due diligence” duty to protect citizens from gender-based violence by private perpetrators.

As an expanding toolbox and “ecosystem”, the international human rights repertoire has moved beyond law and top down global institutions to multi-faceted flows such as boycotts and multiple layers of governance. Emerging alternative venues of governance include cross-regional institutions like the Inter-American Human Rights Court and the growing network of hundreds of human rights cities. The rights regime has also shifted governance leverage through increasing recognition of rights-based public policy, including urban planning and social services. Despite previous criticisms of central historic gatekeeper human rights movements dominating the ecosystem’s agenda, at this point, horizontal modeling and mobilization are common. Examples range from national campaigns for the right to food in India and Brazil to transnational coalitions for domestic workers’ rights to horizontal networks of environmental defenders.

In a post-liberal world, we need more and better human rights, not less.  We can see the way forward at the frontiers of global practice: relinking civil-political and economic-social rights struggles, democratizing the movement and global regime, expanding rights rubrics and responsibilities. Generations of rights mobilization have built valuable social and institutional capital that can be thoughtfully redeployed to foster resilience in regressions and extensions to emerging global threats. It is not your father’s liberal democracy—it is your sister’s global citizenship.