Human rights – the new ‘realist’ ideology?

“Human rights has become a new world ideology, even a kind of secular religion,” writes Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan, reviewing a “superb” history of the international human rights movement. Recent history and current events demonstrate that “continued pursuit of human rights is not idealism, it is realism,” he insists, noting that “the international human rights movement has often been a significant factor in changing the behavior of states.”

A marginal factor in international politics for the 30 years following the Second World War, Aryeh Neier’s new book, The International Human Rights Movement: A History, describes how human rights emerged in the 1970s as a critical factor in facilitating the collapse of Communism and challenging right-wing military dictatorships:

Human rights has been mainstreamed into American foreign policy, with each president, to be sure, framing it in a different way (Carter as human rights, Reagan as democracy promotion, George W. Bush as a “Freedom Agenda,” and so on). Human rights became a pillar of European Union foreign policy with the adoption of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in 1993. The family of U.N. institutions devoted to human rights has grown—the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was established as recently as 1993. The European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights were established in 1953 and 1979 respectively, but both experienced dramatic increases in their dockets starting in the late 1990s. The African Court of Human and People’s Rights was established in 2004. “Humanitarian intervention”—justified if not necessarily motivated by human rights priorities—has become an increasingly common feature of international politics.

Like many human rights activists, Neier was wary of bi-partisan efforts to go beyond protecting human rights to advancing democracy, initiatives that led to the formation of the National Endowment for Democracy.  But the former executive director of Human Rights Watch concedes in his book that the NED’s institutes have “played a significant role in efforts to promote electoral democracy worldwide during the past three decades.”

“What emerges above all from Neier’s account, however, is the importance of politics,” Nathan notes in The New Republic:

Human rights were created under American dominance after World War II in order to consolidate and to extend American influence. Until the mid-1970s their growth was blocked by a Cold War stalemate between the two camps. But Carter revived the American interest in human rights in part to rally the country behind the need to remain engaged in the world after the defeat in Vietnam. Reagan used his democracy initiative to push back against an assertive Soviet Union. Human rights and democracy became a seeming juggernaut with the U.S.-aided “third wave” of democratic transitions that started in Portugal in 1974 and spread through southern Europe, Latin America, Asia, the socialist world, and Africa, bringing the number of democracies from thirty-nine in 1974 to 121 in 2006. Europe also played a role: the EU used human rights as part of a low-cost values diplomacy that sought to reduce turmoil in the zones of instability that abutted it to the south and east.

The new approach to promoting democracy had its “most profound” impact in Reagan’s second term, with breakthroughs in Chile, Haiti and the Philippines, writes Neier, who retires this year as president of the Open Society Foundations. In a marked departure from earlier covert efforts to support U.S. allies, he notes, NED “provides funds openly to organizations” promoting democracy and human rights, including support for efforts that “probably would not have qualified for the kind of aid” given by Cold War-driven covert agencies.

“Yet many of Neier’s own insights are reasons for concern,” writes Nathan:

Abroad, the challengers to human rights include powerful authoritarian governments such as those of China and Russia, which exert increasing influence on the way newly emerging norms are defined for such issues as the proper bounds of freedom of information on the Internet and the right of civil society organizations to receive financial support from abroad. Women’s human rights continue, as always, to be under attack in fundamentalist communities not only in the Muslim world but also in Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and other societies. Advances in communications technology empower not only citizens but also political police. New weapons such as drones raise new challenges to the laws of war. Even the human rights movement’s friends can hurt it, when they stretch the norms too far and reduce the sacrosanct quality of the original idea, which in the end is its most important asset.

As Neier observes, efforts to advance democracy today confront a different and arguably more complicated set of challenges and problems than during the Cold War, including a more adaptive and assertive form of developmental authoritarianism.

“China is willing to throw its weight around in ways that do damage to human rights,” he notes. “China will let a country like Angola or Sudan know that if they sell their oil to China, then China isn’t going to bother them with strictures about human rights or corruption or transparency.”

The Communist regime “makes its silence on those issues a competitive advantage when dealing with those governments.”

Beijing is not only promoting its own soft power, but actively trying to stifle freedom of expression abroad, says Neier.

“China is the first country that I am aware of that engages in active campaigns against those who try to promote human rights and tries to suggest that it will penalize governments or others who are critical of its human rights practices,” Neier says.

The democratic West appears to have lost the confidence, commitment or courage to promote human rights and democracy, Neier fears.

“One of the most serious problems in the human rights field today is that the cause does not have champions among governments or among intergovernmental bodies,” he says. “Europe is focused inwards, the US is not eager to provide leadership internationally on human rights, and intergovernmental bodies like the UN, the EU and the African Union are not willing to provide such leadership.”

As the US and Europe withdraw, Neier argues, “for the foreseeable future, it is the nongovernmental movement that has assumed and must assume leadership as the voice of human rights.”

Nathan concludes:

What is at stake remains what it was in 1948: in the words of the UDHR, “freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and even more importantly, the simple yet brilliant idea that these global goals must be founded on the micro-level “dignity and worth of the human person.” The more nations become interdependent, the more important norms are as a form of power. The continued pursuit of human rights is not idealism, it is realism.


Andrew J. Nathan is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Saudi Arabia – the new Hermit State?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, as Christopher Hitchens once described North Korea, a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden,” writes Michael J. Totten, the author of “The Road to Fatima Gate” and “Where the West Ends.”

Nevertheless, “For all their frustrations, most Saudis do not crave democracy,” writes Karen Elliott House in her new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future. “What unites conservatives and modernizers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim.”

The roots of oppressive rule appear to be as much geographical as ideological.

“For millennia,” she writes, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”

Religious edicts are crushingly enforced by state, mosque and society. Movie theaters are banned, as are concerts and just about everything else related to entertainment. Women, even foreign women, must cover themselves in public. Unrelated women and men aren’t allowed to mix anywhere. Even Starbucks coffee shops­ are segregated by gender.

Men have it rough, but women have it much rougher. According to Wahhabi Islam, men must obey Allah and women must obey men. “Fortunately for men,” House writes, “Allah is distant, but unfortunately for women, men are ­omnipresent.”

But, Totten notes in his New York Times review, democracy and rule of law are not mutually exclusive, and the former may even be a precondition of the latter.

Justice and the rule of law aren’t at all likely to develop in a system that is not democratic. If House is right, then whatever happens, a new or post-Saudi Arabia may end up like post-Soviet Russia, at least in one way. A spring-like revolution for freedom, where human rights, justice, and the rule of law replace toppled labyrinth walls, will be a dream deferred to generations unborn.


International Human Trafficking and Forced Labor

The scourge of human trafficking and forced labor impacts every country in the world. The exploitation of women, men and children destroys basic human dignity and is one of the most challenging human rights problems due to its global reach. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates more than 21 million people were victims of forced labor this year, significantly higher than the 12.3 million victims reported in 2005.

Despite the staggering numbers of victims, anti-trafficking advocates are developing innovative strategies to address this modern slavery at both the international and local levels, through an increasing focus on recruitment agencies and business transparency as well as the monitoring of supply chains.

Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on international human trafficking and forced labor. In addition to assessing this major human rights challenge and considering potential solutions from a global perspective, this hearing will examine trafficking, sexual exploitation, and forced labor in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012. 2:00 PM– 4:00 PM. Rayburn 2237, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.

The following witnesses will testify:

Panel I

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Panel II

Mr. Siddharth Kara, Author and Fellow, Carr Center Program on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at Harvard University.

Dr. Mohamed Mattar, Executive Director, The Protection Project.

Ms. Neha Misra, Senior Specialist on Migration and Human Trafficking, Solidarity Center.

Ms. Mary C. Ellison, Director of Policy, Polaris Project.

If you have any questions, please contact the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at 202-225-3599 or

The Solidarity Center is one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy. The NED supports the center’s work to combat human trafficking.

Adaptable autocrats’ challenge to democracy

The world has changed and today’s autocrats are changing with it. Demonstrating resilience and a keen ability to adapt, leading authoritarian regimes are developing more subtle and sophisticated methods to retain power.  To suppress dissent, mass brutality has been replaced by selective safety inspections and tax investigations, as well as arbitrarily applied regulations designed to undercut the activities of independent civil society and opposition groups.

New economic resources at the disposal of regimes in Beijing, Moscow, and Caracas have enabled them to bolster their authoritarianism. Meanwhile, the democratic world has been slow to acknowledge and respond to the emergence of these new, more nimble regimes.

Please join a discussion featuring William J. Dobson, author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, and Joshua Stacher, author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria, as they discuss how leaders in China, Egypt, Russia, Venezuela, and other countries have adapted to suppress democratic movements in their countries. Despite the initial excitement surrounding the recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa in particular, continuity—not wide-ranging political change—remains the hallmark of many of the world’s autocracies.

The International Forum for Democratic Studies
at the National Endowment for Democracy

cordially invites you to a presentation titled

New Authoritarians and the Challenge to Democracy


William J. Dobson



Joshua Stacher

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Kent State University

moderated by

Christopher Walker

International Forum for Democratic Studies

Thursday, December 6, 2012
12:00–2:00 p.m.
(lunch served from 1212:30pm)

1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004
Telephone: 202-378-9675

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Tuesday, December 4.


William J. Dobson is the politics & foreign affairs editor for Slate and author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. Previously, he served as the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Under his editorial direction, the magazine was nominated for the National Magazine Award five years in a row, and in 2007 and 2009 Foreign Policy won the overall award for General Excellence. During the height of the Arab Spring, the Washington Post editorial page commissioned Dobson to write daily online pieces on modern authoritarianism.

Joshua Stacher is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he is starting a book project on Egypt’s political transition. He is also an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University. Stacher is the author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt & Syria (Stanford UP, 2012). He is a regular contributor to and editorial board member of MERIP’s influential Middle East Report. Stacher has made media appearances and written commentary for NPR, CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, Foreign Affairs, Jadaliyya, and The New York Times, among others.

Egypt’s Brotherhood pressing for ‘one-party autocracy’?

Liberal and secular members have resigned from the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting Egypt’s new constitution, arguing that they were denied the opportunity to contribute to its framing and their suggestions were routinely ignored.

“There is an insistence to give society an authority that allows any group or individuals to assault people in the street under the excuse of protecting morals or religion,” they said in a statement.

The episode is likely to enhance concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, are embarked on what analyst Amr Hamzawy calls a “clear trend toward establishing a one-party autocracy.”

The group is “invading” state institutions, said Hamzawy (right), founder of the Free Egypt Party.

“It is a situation which is alarming and undermines the potential for sustained democratic transition,” he said. “We are seeing a party, a movement, taking over the state apparatus, and, in doing so, the potential viable emergence of an opposition is being undermined,” he told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Non-Islamist groups complain that the Brotherhood is backtracking on an earlier commitment to adopt an inclusive approach to drafting the constitution.

“Things can’t go on like this,” said Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League and among those who withdrew. “The constitution should be for all of Egypt, not just for a group or a particular party. We see that it is flawed, but there is still a possibility of fixing the problems.”

The walkout was prompted by the most contentious of the proposed constitutional articles which was inserted at the insistence of Salafis, hard line Islamists who want the charter to lay the ground for a speedy and literal implementation of their interpretation of Islamic law.

Although previous Egyptian constitutions have stipulated that the “principles” of sharia (Islamic law) were the “main source” of legislation, the new article attempts to define the word “principles” in a way which critics say could usher in more religion in governance and open the way for ultraconservatives to push for their own particular interpretations of Islamic law.

“We reached a dead end,” said Wahid Abdel Meguid, one of the liberals who withdrew. “We objected to concepts which [reflect] Taliban or Wahhabi [thinking].

The liberals’ withdrawal follows the earlier departure of Coptic members of the , including analyst Samir Morcos and Edward Ghalib, deputy chairman of the Freedoms Committee, who resigned claiming that “the body is moving on the road to writing a constitution for an Islamist state rather than for a national-unity state.”

The draft constitution”clearly puts Egypt on the road of becoming a religious state,” Ghalib told Ahram Online.

“This is quite obvious in the fact that under the pressure exerted by the Salafists [ultraconservative Islamists], article 220 was added [to the draft constitution] to offer a radical interpretation of the principles of Islamic Sharia (law),” explained Ghalib.

“Passing the constitution in its current form is a loss to everyone, we can’t be part of this constitution,” said Moussa, adding that differences were on “basic” articles.

“We were deprived of discussing articles which is the main task of the assembly,” the former presidential candidate added, criticizing the assembly’s “rush” to finish.

Liberals, who include people behind the uprising that toppled Mubarak as well as figures who

The draft constitution gives unchecked powers to the president, said Hamzawy, a prominent analyst and activist. It also dilutes the powers of parliamentary oversight, ignores Egypt’s commitments to international human rights conventions and relies on fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law that will curb the rights of women, Christians and other minorities, he said.

“The process is in a crisis,” he said, adding that liberal and secular groups plan to draft an alternative constitution.

“We do believe that the parallel draft constitution that we will put forward does reflect a wider national consensus; and it does not, in any way, threaten or challenge the Islamic identity of Egypt,” Hamzawy said.

Liberal and secular activists remain resentful that the Islamists have hijacked the revolution, subverting the democratic transition for their own sectarian and illiberal ends.

“The ultimate beneficiary was the Muslim Brotherhood primarily, the Salafis secondarily, and the young revolutionaries came out nearly empty handed,” said prominent sociologist and political analyst Saad El Din Ibrahim.“They marshaled and manipulated every event that happened. The Muslim Brotherhood ended up collecting all the fruits.”

It’s not only the Brotherhood and not only in Egypt that Islamists groups are “crudely manipulating” Sharia for political ends, says a leading analyst.

“Historically, the implementation of Sharia was not imposed from above, as the Salafis would have us think. The political and cultural concerns of society were reflected into Sharia, and the latter remained sensitive to the general needs of the population,” writes Khalil Al-Anani:
This is why Muslim scholars came up with the brilliant idea of defining the “goals of Sharia” (maqased al-sharia), a set of objectives that was not in dispute by the general public. The “goals of Sharia” grew into a major branch of Islamic studies, leaving us with a rich tradition of innovative ideas on matters of public interest. According to Islamist scholars, the five main goals of Sharia were the protection of: religion; self; mind; life; and property.
The Salafis have no time for any of that. What interests them is how to turn Sharia into a monolithic and abstract concept to wield like a baton against their opponents. Thus, the fact that Sharia is a malleable body of guiding principles escapes their notice.

But Georgetown University analyst Jonathan Brown is confident that “slightly more inclusion of Sharia will not change the legal, and certainly lifestyle, characteristics of the Egypt we know today.”

Egyptians demonstrated at the polls that they want a more Islamic government, he told a forum at the Middle East Institute.

George Washington University’s Nathan Brown said the overall civility of Egyptian politics has been good thus far, the Project for Middle East Democracy reports, but the Brotherhood has no mechanism for engaging in meaningful dialogue with outside parties.

Egypt is a fundamentally freer and more pluralistic society than it was two years ago, he said, but warned, that “five years from now, Egypt could be the ‘wrong Turkish model’ which is dominated by one political party.”

NGOs and civil society emerged from the revolution with more credibility, said Nancy Okail, Freedom House’s Egypt director. But the Brotherhood-appointed foreign minister was seeking to undermine civil society groups which perform a vital role in holding governments accountable.


POMED is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.