The ‘Populist Challenge’ Putting Human Rights In Danger Worldwide


The rise of intolerance, xenophobia and the far-right among Western nations has given way to a disregard for human rights and has created an “open field for murderous leaders,” warns human rights group official.

Human Rights Watch has released a 2018 annual report focusing on human rights practices around the world, which has highlighted the current ‘populist challenge.’ The organization’s Executive Director, Kenneth Roth, said that there has been a rise in “politicians around the globe who claimed to speak for “the people,” but built followings by demonizing unpopular minorities, attacking human rights principles, and fueling distrust of democratic institutions.” This is evident in the United States and the United Kingdom, with Trump’s election and the U.K.’s move towards Brexit. Roth points out that Trump won the presidency “with a campaign of hatred against Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, and other racial and ethnic minorities, and an evident disdain for women.” These two nations, who both have traditionally played a significant role in championing human rights worldwide, appear to have made some level of departure from their previous commitments. With concerns as to whether Theresa May will remove the U.K. from the European Convention on Human Rights when it leaves the EU, and with Trump’s move to discriminate against Muslims who wish to visit or seek asylum in the United States. It seems that there is a  lack of leadership in human rights from the Western world.

The report encouraged the EU to focus on doing more to oppose Turkey’s suppression of press freedom, the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen. Yet many European nations are currently struggling with anti-refugee rhetoric, and the rise of the far-right domestically. Although Roth commends France’s President Macron for his fight against this rhetoric in France, Roth articulates that the world is expecting more from him. “It’s easy to defend human rights when it’s free when there’s no real cost in doing so. Nevertheless, when you’re dealing with Chinese or Saudi (business) contracts, or you’re dealing with Egypt’s potential assistance in fighting terrorism … Macron has been more resistant to standing up for human rights,” says Roth.

Roth explains the importance of resistance and how “The only way to limit the rise of autocrats is to stand up to them. The only way to preserve the values populists attack is to defend them. The battle is very much under-way, and it’s one very much worth engaging in.” This is exemplified by the resistance to a U.K. state visit from Trump, which has been passionately opposed by British people, especially Londoners. Trump’s ill-informed decision to retweet a video from Britain First, a far-right Islamophobic group, has created a huge backlash in the U.K. with Labour MP Dennis Skinner deeming him a “fascist.” The threat of mass protests across the U.K. and in the capital, as well as opposition from Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has seemed to deter Trump from making an official visit. British MPs have shown their resistance to a state visit from Trump, with Labour MP Yvette Cooper stating, “No matter what diplomatic route we find to do it, we cannot simply roll out a red carpet and give a platform for the President of the United States to sow discord in our communities.”

Encouraging nations with strong human rights to lead the way and hold other nations accountable for rights abuses, while also instilling a sense of resistance to the ‘populist challenge’ that has taken hold of much of recent global politics, real change can be created. Human rights are crucial to the foundations of a free and fair society, and are an integral part of achieving world peace.