How can human rights counter populist authoritarianism?

– Most people when they
think about human rights and populism, they think
about how populism is a threat to human rights, and
progressives then struggle to try and reinforce and
protect human rights values. But actually, I think you can at it from a completely different angle. If you think about how
human rights were born and conceived, it was after World War II. The people who wrote up and
created human rights standards had one thing in mind and that is, how do we prevent a
situation arising ever again where you could have
something like Nazi Germany? Populist authoritarianism is basically the antithesis of human rights. Human rights is about
guaranteeing human dignity. It’s about creating an equal chance for everybody in society. So, making you into the
best person that you can be. Someone who can contribute
fully to society. So that’s why you have
a right to education and healthcare and housing and
adequate standard of living. It’s also about making
you an active participant in democracy, so you
should get a good education so you can understand what’s going on. According to the right to education, you are suppose to teach
tolerance and empathy and perspective taking
and critical thinking and educate people about human rights. And these are all things
that make you less likely to endorse authoritarian attitudes. It’s why you have social
and economic rights: so that populist
authoritarians cannot exploit massive economic shocks that happen where you have a recession. So for example, the way
that most of our governments responded to the recession
was through austerity. They cut public services. Instead of maintaining
spending on healthcare and housing and education,
they took money out of that. And the thing is, these
public services operated as a shield to protect people
against the consequences of economic shock, so that
people did not feel vulnerable. And this is why you’re supposed to have a good welfare system – to protect people when they become unemployed. And so, human rights was really… it creates a structure, a system, an environment where populist authoritarianism cannot grow. Both types of authoritarians, the social dominators or ineglitarians and the right-wing authoritarians,
the traditionalists, both of them dislike human rights, but for slightly different reasons. And this goes for all of the
policies that they support. They kind of support
similar sets of policies, but for different reasons. So if you ask them in the abstract, they say that they agree
with human rights standards, usually, but once you start giving them a concrete situation,
they change their tune. So for example, you might say,
do you agree in free speech? And they’ll say, yes we
agree in free speech. And you say, do you think
that it is okay for a group that is campaigning for access to abortion to be able to protest outside parliament? No, we don’t. Because why? Well because that threatens
traditional values and because it tries to alter the position of women in society. Governments also have a
responsibility in terms of the narratives and the
policies that they push themselves so they need to stop using hate speech. They need to stop scapegoating migrants. They would have to find alternative ways of funding good, quality media. That could be by developing
non-profit models of media. So for example, in the
Netherlands you have a news outlet called The Correspondent which is a non-profit-making news outlet. Governments could also
give them tax breaks. Another way that you could
try and address the triggers used by populist authoritarians is through what’s called contact or
mixing or integration. When you have mixing between groups under fairly normal circumstances,
you find that levels of prejudice between those
different groups drop. And so does support for
populist authoritarians. So this is why in urban
areas where there is mixing and where groups aren’t
fighting over resources, there’s lower support for
populist authoritarians. That’s why London didn’t
vote for Brexit for example. Whereas in the countryside
where you don’t have this mixing there is greater support
for populist authoritarians because they’re able to
scare people about migrants and then there’s no counterbalance to that because nobody’s met any migrants and doesn’t realize
they’re just normal people. NGOs can get funding and
work with local authorities, for example, to create contact projects. That can be exchanges
between different schools in different communities or exchanges between schools in different countries. It can be housing projects where you mix different majority and minority groups who build houses together for example. And all of these projects
will bring people into greater contact with
each other to develop social relations, friendships,
and these things would, as I said before, help
to diminish prejudice. So there are things that
NGOs can do as well.

Maurice Vega

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