Human rights in the time of populism

An interview with Sam Zarifi, Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists


While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) turns 70, the human rights picture looks bleak. Present times are witnessing a human rights ‘phobia’ that is spreading fast all over the globe. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Donald Trump in the United States (US), Matteo Salvini in Italy, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – a few but significant names that have one common feature: discrediting and challenging human rights up front and officially. What we see today is not politicians trying to hide violations of human rights; we see them openly and proudly claiming that the disrespect for human rights is no big deal, that human rights should actually not be taken care of. Currently, liberal democracies are facing what Philip Alston calls ‘the populist challenge to human rights’.

Rights! decided to talk about these and other topics with Saman (Sam) Zia-Zarifi, Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists, an international NGO that for more than 60 years has advocated for human rights and the rule of law worldwide. Before being elected Secretary-General in 2017, he served as the Regional Director for the Asia and Pacific Region of the InternationalCommission of Jurists. Previously, Sam was at Human Rights Watch and AmnestyInternational; he also worked in the academia in the Netherlands and as a corporate litigator in the US. Sam’s mix of theoretical and practical experience offers a vantage point to discuss and reflect on the numerous challenges human rights are nowadays confronted with.

Human rights are facing backlash and criticism in many contexts, from the European Court of Human Rights to the Human Rights Council. Did they dare too much in attempting to limit the action of states? Or is it because of their successes in advancing the well-being of individuals?

Certainly, some of the attacks on human rights defenders around the world are a reflection of their success in challenging violations and abuses by the powerful. There is an unjustified sense of disappointment in the human rights movement, including by some on the left of the political spectrum, because they seem to forget how much good the international human rights framework has achieved in a relatively short time. Human rights organizations and activists helped foster this by failing to acknowledge the advances, by not taking credit for victories, by refusing to credit improvements because they fall short of perfection.

Another source of the backlash against human rights, from the right side of the spectrum, reflects the success of the human rights movement in challenging entrenched power structures. Demanding – and in many cases, achieving – greater rights for historically marginalized people means that those in power feel threatened: those whose power comes from their gender, their race or ethnicity, their religion, or their wealth. These people perceive the struggle for human rights as a zero-sum game, and we have to demonstrate that the human rights movement isn’t demanding extra rights for anyone, we’re simply demanding the same rights for everyone. Improving rights for one group will not weaken another group but will add to the overall enjoyment of rights by everyone.

The human rights movement has not communicated this successfully, and recent advances in media technology have given the edge to those who stoke discrimination, because fear and hate are far easier to propagate in a meme or in 140 characters than egalitarianism and harmony. I believe this is a temporary disequilibrium. As has been the case with every advance in communication technology, from telegram to radio to television, the fax machine, to social media, the powerful and fear-mongers can take advantage of the means of media until the democratizing effects of greater communication kick in. We have to learn how to fight better in this new landscape.

Populist movements and governments are rising throughout the world. A core part of their agendas consists in questioning the relevance of human rights at domestic and international level. Do you think human rights – considered as values, rules and mechanisms – are capable of providing effective responses to such challenges?

Human rights values are the only effective response to such challenges. Popular democracy is a very powerful engine for moving human society; the rule of law (incorporating human rights) is the instrument that directs that movement toward improving human lives. Modern-day authoritarian populists appeal to popular grievances and fears to weaken the rule of law and assault human rights – but the supposed solutions they offer are ineffective and counterproductive.

What will work are policies that respect the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of people. Some of the major anxieties of the moment can be addressed best through policies most compatible with human rights: providing accountability for gross human rights violations; ensuring greater accountability for corporate behavior; protecting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers; providing access to justice; and ensuring protection of labor rights within and across borders. These problems, left unaddressed, provide fertile ground for populists who seek authoritarian power.

Many political figures, particularly those justifying their bad behavior, claim they are engaging in realpolitik. Almost always this is an effort to excuse a supposed short-term gain, at the cost of predictable long-term harm. This is the opposite of reality-based behavior, if anything it’s exceptionally naïve to engage in the same behavior expecting a different outcome. It’s fact-based human rights compliant policies, reflecting actual evidence and risk assessments, that should be the basis of true realpolitik.

This year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. Did the Declaration live up to the expectations? Is it still relevant after seven decades?

Few documents have been so successful so widely and so quickly. A document initially conceived as a nonbinding declaration – something that could be forgotten immediately, like so many political declarations – has instead transformed into the basis of multiple binding treaties, been incorporated into national constitutions, and is known and understood the world over. The minimal standards set out in the UDHR still provide us with basic tools for improving human society, even for issues that were not explicitly envisioned 70 years ago, such as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Some areas that I think requires elaboration now within the framework of the UDHR are the impact of humans on the climate and thus the impact of climate change on human rights, and the elaboration of rights in cyberspace.

Would states today be capable of drafting, or even just adhering to, a document such as the UDHR?

I’m not sure if the UDHR would pass the GeneralAssembly today – but it did 70 years ago. Sovereign States agreed to the RomeStatute 20 years ago, subjecting their leaders to individual criminal liability, though today we see some retrenchment. The international human rights framework has developed in fits and starts, with significant ups and downs, and it’s clear that over the past 70 years the trend has been toward progress; even over the past 30 years things have improved. But there’s nothing inevitable about this success; today things look grimmer than they did 10 years ago, and I’d say that it’s been two steps forward, one back – our task is to ensure that we don’t go back any farther, and that we can resume the progress.  If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King said, it’s only because of the struggle of people dedicated to justice.

At the geopolitical level, it’s crucial now for States interested in defending the international system of rule of law and human rights, who have benefited from that system but who perhaps tended to stay behind the superpowers, whether the former Soviet Union or China or the US and to a smaller scale the UK, to assume frontline positions due to the confusion and distraction of those P5 States.

Nowadays human rights have become a profession. Do you see a negative side in such a development? Isn’t there a risk for human rights to become progressively detached from grass-roots movements, activism and idealism, and turn into a career path similar to many others?

I see professionalization as a good thing. It’s many others exclusive of grass-roots activism, and certainly not of idealism. Professionalization means being able to use the relevant tools more effectively, and in this sense I think the improvements in terms of human rights monitoring, documentation, reporting, and advocacy are tremendous and have helped the success of the human rights movement. But working professionally in defense of human rights is not like many other professions and includes within a necessary component of moral commitment to the cause rather than the profession. Where it becomes dangerous is when professionalism turns into careerism and practitioners lose sight of the underlying cause, do things or take positions to protect their jobs instead of advancing the cause.

Rights! Notebook ‘human rights journey’ profile

What are you most proud of in your human rights journey?

There are some highlights: 20 years ago, I coedited one of the early legal collections addressing the human rights obligations of multinational corporations (Liability of Multinational Corporations under International Law); over the years, a few of my colleagues whom I first had the privilege to work with in thecontext of national human rights crises are now able to work on a global level and I was able to help or advise them in some small way, sometimes by protecting their safety and sometimes, especially at the International Commission of Jurists, by supporting their engagement with international law; in Afghanistan and Iraq, our team at Human Rights Watch (where I previously worked) did research on transitional justice (Afghanistanand Iraq) and on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (Afghanistan and Iraq) that I think are still relevant today; finally, I was in the first group of NGO observers at the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals – something I’m proud of but also deeply sad about because I witnessed the US turn its backon its avowed principles and in particular on its tradition of respecting therule of law, and I witnessed a process that would be farcical if weren’t so deadly serious.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

An archaeologist. It’s still a dream, maybe something for retirement as an amateur assistant on an expedition in Central Asia or Afghanistan. But even as a kid I knew that I probably needed an alternative to archaeology, so I dreamed of being a journalist or a diplomat, and my job now combines some of the best aspects of both those jobs.

If you had a magic wand, how would you use it?

I would stop global temperature increases caused by humans.

Who are your human rights heroes/heroines?

So many people that I work with today are my heroes because they are committed to defending right even though they’re often personally vulnerable to persecution and harassment. In terms of people who inspired me over the years, there are so many that I have a hard time cutting it down. Here goes a list just off the top of my head:

Mohammad Mossadegh, the first (and arguably last) democratically elected prime minister of Iran, who nationalized Iran’s oil industry and as a result was overthrown in a coup d’etat in 1953 with assistance from the US and UK. My family, in particular Ahmad Zirakzadeh, my great uncle, were closely involved with Mossadegh and the stories of his commitment to democracy and rule of law (including famous victories at the International Court of Justice and at the United Nations) were a constant part of my youth in Iran.

Rosa Parks, the American civil rights activist whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus prompted a successful boycott and lawsuit – classic nonviolent tools in the fight for rights dignity. She also embodies for me the decency and can-do attitude that are the best of the US, a country I love deeply as an immigrant.

Victor Jara, the Chilean singer and songwriter, who was killed after the coup d’etat that overthrew Allende in 1973 (I see a trend here). WhenI was growing up in Iran it was illegal to listen to his songs, and even though we didn’t understand Spanish we loved his songs and felt his passion. And the notion of ‘el derecho de vivir en paz’ (the right to live in peace) was fundamental in any language and conveys the tremendous power of art to communicate.

Asma Jahangir, the Pakistani human rights lawyer and a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists, one of the bravest people I had the privilege of knowing and working with, who left us far too soon last year. 

What is your favourite word?

In English, ‘laughter’. It’s a solid Germanic-Dutch word; its spelling is so peculiar and at odds with its pronunciation; its almost onomatopoetic; it makes me laugh if I think about it too hard.

In Persian, it’s ‘azadi’, which means freedom. I love the meaning; I love the sound, with the two long ‘a’s and the final drop; its etymology is linked to nobility and ultimately being born, and I like the notion that we are free and noble upon birth.

How do you cope with stress?

What stress?!! Mostly my family keeps me happy. Science Fiction and romantic comedies provide entertainment and hope for the future. History provides context to fend off impending panic.

What is the screensaver on your work computer?

Right now it’s this painting:

It was drawn by Bijan Jazani, a close friend and political associate of my uncle Hassan Zia-Zarifi who together fought against the injustices of Iran’s monarchy. Together they helped launch the armed resistance movement in the 1960s in Iran– though they were both captured and imprisoned before they could actually do anything militant. They were both severely tortured during the last years of the monarchy and ultimately executed extrajudicially while in prison in 1975, in part for inspiring the militant opposition to the Shah. Their case generated tremendous international criticism of the Shah, including by AmnestyInternational and the International Commission of Jurists, so I hope I’ve repaid in a small way the debt of gratitude my family owed to these organizations.

The painting is called ‘Siyahkal’, a reference to the village near my uncle’s birthplace in northern Iran where the movement had its abortive beginning. It’s a painting that is basic in its ideas. It combines ugliness and beauty; violence and hope. It reminds me of my uncle – whose ideology I don’t really agree with but whose unjust treatment and perseverance in the face of immense suffering should never be experienced by anyone again. He was the first lawyer in my family until I went to law school and serves as a symbol of struggle against injustice.

What advice do you have for the next generation of human rights defenders?

Something practical: learn different languages. More broadly, avoid politics and always remain true to factual assessment of the human rights situation, because politics is about who is in power, while human rights are about how those in power govern. We shouldn’t celebrate, or condemn, a political figure gaining power until we see in practice how they respect human rights.

Where do you see the world in 5 years’ time?

Recovering from the effects of this current epidemic of authoritarian populism and embracing a more sensible, rights-friendly approach that seeks human rights and dignity through mutually supportive international collaboration. Or, a nuclear waste infested dystopia.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

Sitting in the gallery of a courthouse ensuring that General in Aung Hlaing or Rodrigo Duterte or Mohammed bin Salman get a fair trial facing charges of crimes against humanity.

Meet the author

Vito Todeschini (PhD, Aarhus University) is co-editor-in-chief of Rights!. He is an Associate Legal Adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, Middle East and North Africa Programme. Vito’s interests lie in international humanitarian law, human rights law and the law on the use of force. His research is available on SSRN and Academia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s