Challenges to international human rights

Not only are democracy and freedom in the world declining, the willingness of liberal democracies to defend the norms and institutions that support them is also fraying. To what extent does that reflect popular opinion?


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

Earlier this year, Freedom House released its annual Freedom in the World report, “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy.” The report revealed that for the 14th consecutive year, freedom had declined globally. Included in this decline are 34 countries that experienced a deterioration in political and civil liberties such as the United States, many European countries, South Africa and Brazil—along with the usual suspects such as China, Russia and Turkey. 

Though the drop of individual countries in the ranking is worrisome, more troubling has been the decline of support among liberal democracies for international norms and actions to defend human rights and democracy in the world. The rise of nationalist populist governments and states’ decreasing commitment to multilateralism have eroded the institutions and norms that defined and defended human rights since World War II. 

The extent to which this phenomenon will endure depends on the degree these policies reflect shifting popular opinion on human rights and international activism in favor of them.  

So, what do people think about human rights and democracy?

A silver lining

The good news is that, so far, populations across the world still tend to respect human rights, the institutions that are in charge of protecting them, and expect governments to defend them domestically. The bad news is this support is potentially lower among supporters of the nationalist populist movements in the developed world. 

According to the 2020 Pew World values report, based on surveys conducted from May 13 to October 19 of 2019, a median 55 percent of the population in 34 countries support the notion that “human rights organizations should operate freely” in their country. Among 14 European countries, support of human rights organizations was 59 percent, and in the U.S. and Canada support stood at 91 percent and 93 percent. Support for human rights organizations was largely consistent across Europe, ranging from a high of 75 percent in Greece, to a low of 63 percent in Hungary and 57 percent in Poland; in these latter cases, a majority of citizens support democracy even though their ruling governments are illiberal democracies. 

In contrast, support of human rights groups was far lower in Russia and in some Asian democracies. In six countries of the region (Australia, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, and India), a median 47 percent of citizens believed that defending the activities of human rights groups was important. The lack of support for human rights groups is not just in the struggling democracies of the Philippines and India (where 56 percent and 35 percent of citizens respectively support human rights organizations) but also in the more liberal democracies of Australia (54 percent), Japan (47 percent ) and South Korea (46 percent). Less surprising is the very low level of support in Russia, where only 31 percent of citizens support the rights of human rights organizations in the country—the lowest in the 34-country survey.

Another indicator of the continued respect for international human rights is the support of gender equality, one of the defining issues of new generation rights. Across the 34-country survey 74 percent of respondents agreed that gender equality is very important for their country. This includes 91 percent and 95 percent of Americans and Canadians respectively, and a median 85 percent across the 14 European countries mentioned above. As with support for human rights organizations, Russia ranked the lowest in the 34-country study with only 54 percent of Russians supporting equal rights.

Of course, support for the importance of human rights groups and gender equality in one’s own country is only a proxy for support for human rights as a foreign policy objective. But it indicates that despite examples of pushback and resistance to human rights from governments in China, Russia, Poland, Hungary and even, at times, the U.S., a majority of citizens globally still support the right of organizations to defend civil and political liberties and believe in gender equality. By implication, those citizens can also—potentially—be understood to extend those same rights and obligations to citizens and organizations in other countries.  

Despite a notable growing rhetorical disdain and even rejection of multilateral organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the EU and the United Nations (UN) from governments in France, the U.S. and the UK, many of those institutions remain popular in the minds of their citizens. Again, according to Pew surveys, support for the UN across 32 countries stood at a median 61 percent. This included median support of 66 percent across 14 European countries, ranging from 80 percent in Sweden to 48 percent in Greece—the only country where the majority of the population failed to have positive views. Even in the U.S., where the UN remains a deeply polarizing institution and a frequent target, a majority of Americans (59 percent) had positive views of the much-maligned multilateral body.  

Similarly, despite becoming a whipping boy for nationalist movements in Europe and pro-Brexiteers in the UK, the EU remains largely popular in the continent. According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, eight countries (Sweden, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, UK, Greece, and France) favored the EU, with a median level of 62 percent supporting the body. Sweden ranked the highest, with 72 percent of its population supporting the EU, and France one of the lowest, with only 51 percent supporting the body. Fifty-four percent of those in the UK support the body they recently left. The country with the most unfavorable view of the EU was, perhaps expectedly given the sanctions, Russia, with only 37 percent of its citizens supporting the multi-lateral union. 

In short, with popular attitudes supporting both the importance of human rights organizations and the post-World War II multilateral organizations that—in part—serve to defend them, things may not be as bleak as the isolated examples of Russia, China, Turkey, Poland and Hungary and the lack of effective collective efforts externally to cajole greater respect for the rule of law and the checks and balances of democratic government would have you believe.  

Clouds on the horizon

While most developed democracies have favorable public opinion of human rights and the multilateral bodies that protect them, growing support for populist nationalist movements might change that. In Europe, supporters of populist nationalist parties in Sweden, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands are far less supportive of human rights internationally than non-supporters. 

According to the Pew survey data, there is a stark contrast between how supporters of nationalist movements and those who have negative views of them feel about human rights. For example, in Germany, there is a 25-point difference between how Germans who support the right-wing Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) and those who oppose the party, feel about religious freedom. Only 45 percent of those who had positive views of the AfD tolerated religious freedom compared to 77 percent of those who had negative views of the party. 

In France, the same pattern was evident between those who had negative or positive views of the populist National Rally party of Marine Le Pen. Fifty-five percent of those who had negative views of France’s nationalist party supported religious freedom, while only 41 percent of those who were more favorably disposed to the party were tolerant of religious diversity. The same was also true in the United Kingdom with a 16-point difference between those who had positive views of the right-wing nationalist UK Independence Party (UKIP) (63 percent supporting religious freedom) and those who didn’t support UKIP (79 percent support for religious freedom).  

Given that these parties continue gaining popularity and even expanding their presence in the public debate and in government, this may represent a troubling sign of things to come regarding international human rights norms and activism. Indeed, these parties don’t need to reach the executive office to affect attitudes and policies. Many have already influenced discourse and policies on immigration, even from the fringes. As they continue to grow, they will likely continue to push for policies as long as centrist political parties and leaders fail to publicly and actively criticize them and defend basic religious or human rights, or—as has happened in some cases on immigration policies—centrist parties move to adopt their rhetoric in an attempt to co opt their followers into more mainstream politics.  

This political shift to the fringes has been particularly evident in the United States. According to the Pew surveys, in the United States, as with almost everything, an active U.S. foreign policy has become deeply politicized with partisans on either side expressing opposing views. According to surveys conducted in 2019, Democrats are far more likely to support a more engaged U.S. foreign policy than Republicans. While 54 percent of Americans who identified as Republican or lean Republican said the U.S. should be less active in world affairs, 62 percent of respondents who claimed to be Democrats or lean Democratic said the U.S. should be more active. Across a range of foreign policy issues, partisanship was a more significant explainer of differences than race, religiosity, education age or gender. 

Were it not for historical perspective, this would not be surprising during the era of President Donald Trump and his nativist and nationalist domestic and foreign policies. Stretching back to the administration of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), Republicans have made active engagements in world affairs, often through the defense of human rights and promotion of democracy, a keystone of the party platform, first in the struggle against communism and later under President George W. Bush (2001-2009) in the battle against terrorism and Islamic extremism.  

Today, however Republican voters’ attitudes have shifted dramatically away from those positions. Arguably part of this may be due to the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq in the name of promoting democracy. Nevertheless, it indicates how fragile partisan consensus and public opinion can be over what was at one point largely a consensus position within the Republican Party. None of this is to say that support for democracy or human rights in either U.S. party translated into its impartial application or support for international mechanisms or norms to defend. Nor is it to say that an active foreign policy translates into a human rights policy.  

And, of course, majority popular support for human rights organizations’ right to operate domestically or for institutions like the UN is not the same as supporting the rights of multilateral organizations to weigh in on or intervene in defense of popular sovereignty. The shift in attitudes of Republicans in the U.S. regarding foreign policy demonstrates how quickly those views can change.  

What these finds do demonstrate is the importance of continuing to emphasize and reinforce the legitimacy of human rights and international norms among citizens. Pro-human rights leaders—politicians and public intellectuals—need to actively work to publicly explain and defend the importance of those rights and institutions; otherwise popular opinion will shift too.  When that happens, the risk is that the current trend in the erosion of international human rights will become more entrenched in public attitudes and political orientations. The title of Freedom House’s report may have been more prescient than intended. Are there leaders within the developed and developing world willing to defend and explain these values and their enduring importance?  

Christopher Sabatini is the senior research fellow for Latin America at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London and is on the board of Global Americans which he founded in 2015.

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