Losing the battle for hearts and minds

For decades, Aung San Suu Kyi was an iconic figure for the global human rights movement. As a staunch opponent of one of the world’s most authoritarian military dictatorships, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In 2015 she led her National League for Democracy to a landslide victory in Myanmar’s elections. She has even had a U2 song written about her. Despite the constraints still imposed on her by the military, she has forged a democratic space at the heart of Myanmar’s politics unthinkable even ten years ago. And yet, her response, or lack of it, to the atrocities perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims over the past few weeks has led to a storm of international condemnation and protest. Some of her previous champions are demanding she be stripped of her Nobel Prize. The Global Human Rights Regime, which at one time regarded her as one of their own, now faces a problematic reality. Not only does Aung San Suu Kyi appear to have her own views on the legitimacy, or otherwise, of the rights of the Rohingya, the people of Myanmar  continue to idolise her despite her controversial stand.

"What human rights mean and require is neither self-evident nor particularly persuasive."

What does this tell us about the prospects for human rights in a post-Western world? What human rights mean and require is neither self-evident nor particularly persuasive when they confront social, economic and political trade-offs that impose costs on others. This is especially true for majority populations who can achieve what they want more effectively through the ballot box than through international law. Aung San Suu Kyi is a democrat, a freedom fighter, a leader of the people of Myanmar. She’s just not a political liberal. Indeed, she’s turning out to be something of a nationalist, even a populist, aware that the constituency that matters is the one that votes for her, not the one that who gives her symbolic international prizes. Whether we are talking about Trump, May, Orban, Duterte or Suu Kyi, it only takes a plurality of voters—or Electoral College voters—to ensure their election. Suu Kyi, as it happens, has approval rates above 80%.

Human rights as a wasting asset

As I have argued elsewhere, the vast array of global human rights laws, courts and norms, and high-profile cases is the past. These things are part of a world that no longer exists because human rights are no longer necessarily effective for the middle class constituencies who have seen them as beneficial for, but unthreatening to, their own privileged position in the unequal distribution of social power. Human rights function where they are embedded in a liberal culture because there is a social coalition of sufficiently entitled and empowered citizens to embed them—not because they are aspirational demands for freedom and justice that we can find made in other languages going back millennia. Where possible, these citizens have often tried to restrict access to rights to “people like us,” and when that was difficult, other means were found to ensure that real freedom did not threaten the established social order.

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Aung San Suu Kyi's response, or lack of it, to the atrocities perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims over the past few weeks has led to a storm of international condemnation and protest.

It is a staple of modernization theory that democracy requires a middle class, whose interest in restraining arbitrary power (from above) and protecting themselves from revolution (from below) leads them to push for liberal-type reforms: voting rights, a free press, freedom of expression, equality before the law. If we break this class down, we find a large number of people in the “middle-middle” whose concern is no longer whether they will rise up into the secure higher-middle but a fear that they and their children might become poor. As its own interests come to seem threatened, this middle-middle may well be prepared to support, even if tacitly by not opposing them, less liberal policies in order to protect its own status and social security. We can see aspects of this in the breakthrough of populism.

The failing social contract

The idea of the social contract is simple: in return for giving up a degree of freedom, citizens receive protection, property rights and an array of services from government. But as minorities know, this is only notionally the case. In an obvious example, that of law and order, minority and disadvantaged populations often face discrimination in formal legal statutes, case law or in the everyday actions of law enforcement officers. As Ava DuVernay’s 13th demonstrates in shocking detail, for African Americans in the United States, law enforcement is something to avoid because the police are synonymous with racist and often fatal attacks.

As a result, decades of work by activists of all kinds has gone into destabilising social norms around gender, race, sexuality and religion, challenging the expectations of the “model” citizens who anchor the social contract. This is exactly the sort of freedom—to live fully as a person in tune with one’s identity, interests and desires—that human rights protect. Yet, to re-establish the old social contract, assuming that is possible, might mean discriminating in favour of those who claim a privileged place in the sovereign body for their interests and identity. Many populists see the human rights movement as an elite-led conspiracy to rob “real” citizens of their birthright through international (and national) legal and institutional manoeuvring. This marginalises those who have sought to rewrite that contract to make a place for themselves as full citizens.

The phrase “liberal democracy” only dates back to the 1930s–1950s. There is no necessary link between “liberal” and “democratic” and opposition between them has been as much a part of their history as alliance. It is perfectly possible to conceive of democracies that ignore certain fundamental rights. The utopian hopes of human rights promoters, rooted in the optimism of the 1990s, must give way to a sober assessment of the changed politics that rights confront. It is time for the human rights movement to come back into the fold of left-liberal progressive politics, ending its forty-year plus project of providing a new, legalistic, often abstract basis for challenging arbitrary power and discrimination. The battle of democracy means persuading the failing middle-middle that it is to their advantage, as well as being the right thing to do, to stand for the “liberal” in “liberal democracy” and to continue to put their faith in human rights.