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Defending Human Rights Values Under Attack

Executive Director kenroth

The human-rights building blocks of democratic society are the ideas that we should see the humanity in each individual, respect and value differences, and treat others with the respect that we want them to give us.  Yet these values are now under attack more intensely than at any period in recent decades.

In Europe–although Austria may have just dodged a bullet in its presidential election– leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orban and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński speak openly of building “illiberal” democracy— one without essential checks and balances on executive power, including protection for human rights.  In country after country in Europe, far-right and even mainstream parties trade in intolerance, xenophobia, nativism, and fearmongering.

The problem arises elsewhere as well. American demagogues advance their political prospects by appealing to our worst instincts. China and Russia promote authoritarian government as a superior model. African leaders attack international justice.  Governments worldwide try to keep citizens from banding together in civic groups to make themselves heard.  Perhaps most dramatically, the Syrian government has ripped up the Geneva Conventions to fight a war by deliberately attacking civilians in opposition-held areas.

Yet Europe is an important center of the problem.  It is the site of rising Islamophobia, the tarring and marginalizing of entire communities, the demonizing of refugees, and dangerous efforts to turn back the clocks to a time when society was thought to be more uniform, less a melding of differences.

Insecurity is a major cause of these trends: economic insecurity, as many people feel they are falling behind; physical insecurity, because people enjoying a night on the town or a trip abroad are randomly shot down; cultural insecurity, when the meaning of what it is to be, say, French or German is no longer as simple as had long been assumed.

In such times of insecurity, there is a tendency to retrench, to seek shelter among those who seem most like us, to shut the gates to others, to blame them for our problems and disappointments.  That instinct provides the platform for the growing voices of hate.

Yet these trends are not inevitable, nor must our role be reduced to that of worried spectator.  Because they put in question the very nature of our societies, we all have a duty to reject this movement toward hatred, exclusion and intolerance, and to do our part to reverse it.

Easier said than done, you might retort.  These are big trends.  How can a single person make a difference?

If we all do our part, the task is not as daunting as it might appear.  Our first responsibility is to cut through the myths and misrepresentations that often accompany the case for intolerance.  When did they solve rather than compound our problems?

Consider the public discourse these days about immigrant and minority communities in Europe, particularly those of Muslims.  Over decades, most European governments have done a poor job integrating these communities.  Residents face limited job and educational opportunities, discriminatory encounters with the police, a sense of not really being accepted by society.  Most residents do the best they can under the circumstances, but some small minority is radicalized and turns to violence.  This is a serious problem, but is Islamophobia really the answer?  These communities are now an integral part of Europe.  If we do not enable their residents to build meaningful lives, if we continue to frustrate their aspirations, if we do not welcome their many contributions, their alienation and despair will only grow.

Or take the problem of terrorism.  It’s true that today’s terrorist threat in Europe comes mainly from second and third generation Muslim immigrants.  A smart counterterrorism strategy reaches out to the people who are most likely to learn of a terrorist plot before it unfolds—the plotters’ family, neighbors and associates, many of them also Muslim.  We want them to feel part of the solution rather than the problem.  We want them to feel comfortable reporting suspicious activity to the police.  But Islamophobia does the opposite.  People who feel they can’t trust the police, that they themselves will be regarded with suspicion if their share their concerns, will remain silent.

Or look at the refugees.  As desperate people flee Assad’s barrel bombs and the Islamic State’s atrocities, many are seeking a haven in Europe.  None of us wants to see chaos at Europe’s borders, but we should be encouraging European governments to help these people by giving generous funding to enable them to educate their children and support their families in their countries of first refugee—in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan.  And as for those who may still want to reach Europe, we should be urging acceptance of many more people directly from those countries of first refuge, without requiring them first to take a dangerous boat across the Mediterranean.

Readers may or may not agree with each of these arguments, but there are many more to be made to counter the voices of hatred and intolerance.  The key is not to assume that rising intolerance is inevitable, that hatred is a natural product of challenging times.  These sentiments flourish only when uncontested.  We must all do our part to stem their flow.

But that leaves the question: how to make oneself heard?  Begin by paying attention to how you conduct yourselves.  Treat others the way you want to be treated.  Be a model that others will emulate.  Positive examples can be contagious.  They speak loudly.

Then talk with your friends, families, and communities.  The more conversations, the better.  Populists love to say that they speak for the community, that they are the authentic voice of the people, that they are upholding national values from foreign intrusion.  For those who disagree, it is important to say, “No, those people do not speak for me.”

In addition, these days it is easier than in the past to take part in the broader public debate about the direction of Europe.  Unlike less than a decade ago, social media such as Facebook and Twitter have greatly democratized access to the public debate.  To make our voices heard, we no longer must depend on often-difficult access to the traditional media.  We all are capable of entering the public conversation from our laptop or mobile phone.  We should seize the opportunity to use that megaphone.

Remember, every political movement starts locally.  Every community begins with a circle of friends.  When chatting with friends or family, when engaging on-line, find space to include commentary on the latest assault on our values.  Challenge myths with facts.  Figure out ways to advance the conversation.  At first you may feel self-conscious talking about these issues, but the more one joins the conversation, the more comfortable it feels, and the more significant your voice becomes.  Even if we start with just a few people, there is a ripple effect.  If we all do our part, the ripples can become waves, even tides.

If we want a world built around the values of human rights, we cannot take them for granted.  There is an urgent need for all of us to come to their defense.  That requires each of us to do our part.

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This essay was drawn from remarks to the graduating class of the American University of Paris and has been published in Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland); Hospodářské noviny (Czech Republic); El Pais (Spain); Die Zeit (Germany); NRK (Norway); ETC (Sweden); Volkskrant (The Netherlands); De Morgen (Belgium); NOL (Hungary); Pravda (Slovakia); La Repubblica (Italy).

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