As the novel coronavirus shaped into one of the most daunting crises the world has faced, it exposed and exacerbated pre-existing contempt for human rights.
The already pitiable state of inequalities and injustices around the world have been made worse by the global health crisis which has given governments and leaders unprecedented authority to control and even trample basic rights of their citizens – all in the name of public safety.
Experts who have decades of experience in defending human rights warn that this trend will fuel the uncontrollable rise of authoritarianism, right-wing politics, extremism, racism, and indeed even revival of fascism.
Speaking from Washington DC, United States and Hamilton, Canada, both Dr Gregory H. Stanton, who is the founding President Genocide Watch, and Dr Rhoda E Howard-Hassmann, a leading human rights expert and is professor emeritus at Wilfrid Laurier University cautioned that the world is witnessing ta dangerous regression in human rights.
Both experts unanimously faulted former US president Donald Trump for encouraging the sharp regression in efforts to protect and promote a range of human rights. “Human rights regressed more during the four years of Donald Trump because the US was no longer leading the way – as it should – on human rights. Not that we should be the only leaders, said Dr Stanton during an hour-long interview. “We had a president who in many ways was opposed to human rights,” explained the former senior US Department of State advisor.
While Trump’s defeat, he said, was a relief, the threat persists. “It is a relief that he was defeated, but no one should get the illusion that the US has really changed. Trump received 74 million votes and he came within a few electoral votes of being re-elected. So, the systematic racism that is still characteristic in the US, and that I’ve fought against my whole life is still very evident.”
He said that Trump’s lack of interest in promoting human rights, encouraged other countries to violate them in many ways and more so during the pandemic – which started on his watch.
“The problem is that because we (the US) were not supportive of human rights in so much of the world a lot of other countries also became worst for human rights,” said Dr Stanton, who is known for drafting the United Nations Security Council resolutions that created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Burundi Commission of Inquiry, and the Central African Arms Flow Commission.
Witnessing the aftermath of the Cambodian Genocide in 1980, Dr Stanton felt called to make it his life's work to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. That calling, according to Dr Stanton, grew into the Rwanda Tribunal and founding of Genocide Watch, a global movement to prevent future crimes against humanity.
During the no holds barred interview over Zoom, Dr Stanton was quick to steer the discussion to human rights violations in other parts of the world that appear to have been accelerated during the pandemic.
India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said has used the restrictions to limit life further in the Kashmir. “Modi has 600,000 Indian troops in Kashmir and the place is in a lockdown in many ways it is a police state. So, discrimination continues.”
Pointing out other discriminatory policies including the Citizenship Amendment Act, which he said, is designed to specifically discriminate against Muslims, the Modi government was trying to accelerate the process of alienating a significant portion of India’s population – primarily based on their religion.
“You can ask an average person here in the US and they might not have any proof that they are citizens. So, this is the sort of discrimination we now see in India,” he said.
Blaming former president Trump, he said: “In Russia it is due to our former president’s complaisance and his almost agreement that enabled Putin to clampdown on all the dissent to persecute the main opposition leader and to try to poison him.”
Dr Stanton also said persecution and violation of basic rights had increased in places like Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, and even Hungary, which is a European state. According to him, human rights violations have become the third rail of the global agenda during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has made everything worst because it has dissolved the social bonds that allow people to act together for social justice. I believe that there are two basic divine forces in the world that we are part of: The first is love which is the way God’s force is personally expressed and the second is justice which is the way God’s force is expressed socially.”
When you dissolve the social fabric of a country, he explained, you automatically weaken the forces of justice. “Many dictators around the world have taken advantage of the Covid epidemic to defeat human rights movements in their countries,” said Dr Stanton, who is known globally for drafting the Ten Stages of Genocide.
The restrictions on public gatherings during the pandemic, he said, enables governments to extend their authoritarian policies. “Due to the restriction on social gatherings, you can’t have demonstrations. So, it makes it very difficult during Covid to organize movements that can defeat forces of tyranny.”
“We are seeing it right now in Myanmar where you have an army – the Tatmadaw – that is literally shooting people in the streets. And yes, those wonderful people of Myanmar still go out facing down those guns – realizing they will be shot and still go out every day. Now that is the kind of courage that is required to defeat tyranny,” he added.
In the wake of the global pandemic, Dr Stanton said: the forces of nationalism have gotten even stronger. We are seeing this selfishness by nation states about vaccines.
“We are seeing this selfishness by nation states about vaccines. They are unwilling to share their vaccines with other nations when we have a global pandemic. If we don’t defeat it everywhere in the world, we won’t be able to defeat it. It is a threat to every human being on the face of this planet,” said Dr Stanton, who served as a young Peace Corps vaccinator during the smallpox eradication program many decades ago. The human race, he said, can only defeat a global threat if it concentrates and cooperates. “There is no other way to win this battle.”
People like Trump, he said, fan the flames of nationalism when they label Covid-19 as the Chinese virus. “Viruses don’t have nationalities or passports. Until we realize that and are willing to share the vaccine with everyone, we won’t be able to defeat the vaccine. We have enough vaccines here in the United States and we should be giving it away,” he said.
Dr Stanton noted that there has been a sharp increase in nationalistic tendencies around the world during the pandemic. “Nationalism turns into fascism and that’s when you start believing that you’re the chosen race and everyone else is the other and that group starts believing it has a special right to take over everything.”
Over the last four years and particularly since the onset of the pandemic, the United States has been accused of being selective in its approach towards human rights violations.
When asked about Washington’s behaviour, Dr Stanton responded candidly: “I agree that the Unites States has been selective. There has been a tension in our foreign policy between advocates of realism and idealism. The struggle has been going on for decades – even while I was at the US Department of State.”
At one point after presenting the 10 stages of Genocide at State Department in Foggy Bottom, Dr Stanton recalls, he was question by then deputy secretary of state and a long-time diplomat, George F. Ward about how preventing genocide was in the national interest of the United States.
“I told Ward it depends how you define our national interest. If you define our national interest narrowly or in terms of controlling oil and strategic position, it really has very little to do with our national interest. But if you have a broader view a longer view of our national interest then you will see that it is in the US’s national interest to promote dignity and the thriving of people all around the world and through that more nations will become democratic, more nations will see liberty – then it is in our national interest.”
He said it should be in the long-term interest of every country to protect and promote human rights. “I do know there is a growing realization in Washington now than it was four years ago that it is in our national interest to promote human rights and prevent genocide.”
When probed further about US policies on human rights and how Washington’s selective approach had harmed the cause, Dr Stanton said: “I am afraid that our record hasn’t been good during recent times. I hope the US becomes more consistent in its approach towards human rights in the future.”
Can Biden protect human rights?
Urging the Biden administration to be more consistent in its human rights polices, Dr Stanton said, the United States has failed to prevent genocide in the past. Referring to what happened in Rwanda, he said: “We haven’t done much to prevent genocide. The only response we had was to send in humanitarian aid. That has not been a viable policy.
“We need to do much more to prevent the act.” he said during the wide-ranging interview.
When asked about how the world can prevent human rights violations, the former research professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention at the George Mason University said: “You simply need to prosecute those who violate human rights. There is no other way to prevent this from repeating.”
He told the The Express Tribune that while respect is fading for human rights, he is hopeful that the social fabric can be repaired. “All we need is good leadership to repair the divisions and protect human rights.”
The enforcement mechanism of global treaties that safeguard human rights, he said, needs to be revisited. “We have no enforcement at all for the Genocide Convention. There is no committee, commission or panel that monitors how well countries are educating their populace to prevent genocide,” said Dr Stanton, who has served also as the President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
He urged that the world needs a multilateral court system to deal with human rights violations. The whole idea of the universal jurisdiction, he said, needs to be revisited.
Violations in the US
At home in the US, he described president Trump’s nationalism as racism on steroids. “That’s what nationalism is ... racism on steroids. It doesn’t work in this current interdependent world. We need to reinvent how the world is organized,” Dr Stanton explained.
“What we have seen here in the United States under Trump is a rebirth of much of the racist injustice that was characteristic of our Southern States just in the 1950s.”
Reminiscing about the time he worked as a civil rights worker in Mississippi at the peak of the segregation, he said: “There were separate toilets for white and black people. White people could eat inside a restaurant and the black people could only get a takeaway.
These systemic systems of discrimination, he said, can be dissolved by the will of the people. “They will be dissolved just like the structures people try to erect in the path of the ocean… the sea walls people put up to keep the ocean out and we know what happens to them when you have a hurricane. It is that kind of force that will undermine these walls and eventually wash them away.”
When asked if he had any hope that the current tide against human rights will be reversed, Dr Stanton said: “I strongly believe that these forces of tyranny will be defeated by the will and strength of the people. It is what drove the civil rights movement here in the United States.”
In the face of tyrannical oppression in the US against the black people, he recalled, the black church became the center of resistance. He concluded by quoting Dr Martin Luther King, an activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the American civil rights: “We will overcome.”
Promised for all?
Speaking from Canada, Dr Rhoda E Howard-Hassmann, a distinguished scholar of human rights shared a grim picture of the world -- where she said, contempt for human rights appears to have increased during the pandemic.
Dispelling the notion of human rights being universal, Dr Howard-Hassmann said: “Human rights have never been universally guaranteed in practice; they are universal in principle.”
“While it is true that some rich, developed countries were influential in formulating the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, so were several independent non-Western countries such as India and Iran. The only groups that had no influence were colonized sub-Saharan Africa and indigenous peoples.”
People who don’t live in developed, the author of Can Globalization Promote Human Rights said, need human rights even more than people who do.
When asked if the current disregard was the step towards a post human rights world, Ontario-based professor said: “I doubt very much that we are moving to a post-human rights world. People will always want the types of freedoms, protections, and material security that the international human rights laws and norms provide in law and principle.”
Besieged with multiple problems, she said, the global human rights movement’s survival depends on how vigorously fight for it.
“We will all have to fight vigorously, though, against the political authoritarianism and fascism that are currently emerging in various countries.”
The biggest challenge, she said, is always corrupt, self-interested elites that control states, wherever they are.
“The other challenge is unbridled capitalism which ignores the dangers of climate change, inequality, and continued discrimination. Racism, genocide, patriarchy, and homophobia are always constant challenges,” explained Dr Howard-Hassmann by email from Canada.
The tide against human rights, she said, can be reversed when civil society groups mount pressure upon the elites that control the governments and the international economy.
However, she acknowledged that the movement becomes difficult when governments throw civil society actors in jail with impunity, or torture or execute them. “Then there is very little possibility of change,” said the former professor who also held the Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at the Wilfrid Laurier University. Towards the end she said human rights should be treated as a global cause and not just left for one country or a group of countries to defend.