There has long been a debate in academic and policy circles about whether foreign policy and human rights are fundamentally incompatible.
This esoteric question was implicitly present in President Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly. As has been remarked, the speech was sovereignty-centric, marked by a retreat from international cooperation, but above all, hypocritical.
While President Trump’s threats to “totally destroy North Korea”; claim that Iran is a “corrupt dictatorship” whose “chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos”; and argument that Venezuela’s government “has inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of that country” are on the face of it, perhaps not completely inaccurate—human rights organisations have long seen North Korea, Iran and Venezuela to have abysmal human rights records—they point to a larger hypocrisy: human rights are often overlooked in defence of policy imperatives.
This hypocrisy isn’t novel, nor is it uncommon. The human rights project has been in existential challenge since its inception, and unchecked globalization and liberal internationalism has only served to undermine their appeal. The international community has condoned permitting known human rights violators to sit on the UN’s Human Rights Panel, see Saudi Arabia or Qatar, while neglecting to adequately protect the rights of refugees. Furthermore, independent states like Canada continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, further flaming the violence in Yemen.
To date, those states which envision a more egalitarian world have done little to stop the rise of Xi Jinping’s China or Putin’s Russia, two states which have been left to challenge enshrined rights norms at home and abroad, and given cover to other ‘abusers’ from Manila to Damascus. Worse, China’s increasing wealth has mean that other criticized states can turn to Beijing for ‘no-strings’ financial and diplomatic support.
This trend has only be emboldened by the increasing number of Western nationalist-populist revolts which are defined by their disregard for the global institutions. The resurgence of ‘sovereignty-first’ rhetoric is giving way to the post-Westphalian visions of a shared global order working for good. Human rights have thus now become both the target of anti-globalists and collateral damage to their attacks on international community. As Pankaj Mishra put it bluntly, “Welcome to the age of anger.”
What does this angry world order mean?
We’ve already seen the perverse effects of such outlooks:
governments are increasingly paying ‘lip-service’ to international legal obligations, shirking their responsibilities and duties towards human rights with almost no immediate fear of meaningful sanction;
the international community has failed to intervene in Syria, despite known chemical weapons attacks and the legal innovation of ‘responsibility to protect’;
and finally, Europe’s purposeful ‘externalisation’ of borders to prevent rightful asylum-seekers from seeking haven from brutal civil wars.
This is not to say that before this populist revolution states did always comply with human rights obligations. However, it was clear that despite such shortfalls, prior to now, the world was moving to a stricter adherence to human rights principles. As is often stated, ‘the arc of moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’
As we step closer to the ‘post-human rights’ world, the question is if global norms and institutions can continue to exist, or if they will, but in an increasingly ineffective form. The rise of President Trump, Brexit and the (ultimately) unsuccessful bids of Marie Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders have only underlined the existential challenges already facing the global rights project—his speech simply epitomized it.
President Trump’s threat of insular United States is frightening not because they are the protector of global institutions, but because he and his rhetoric represent a global retreat from institutions and their norms. The speech marks the first time there was an absence of a call for the protection of rights for others in modern history, and it didn’t go unnoticed. In the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “[it’s] a very welcome statement,” the only question is to who?