Making the impossible possible: Why we need a new human rights diplomacy that’s fit for the 21st century

Politics as usual — or rather, the way we have been “doing politics” (and indeed policy in international relations) — has reached the end of its useful lifespan. That is, if ever it was useful — for more than just a small part of humanity — in the first place. In the Information Age, the lifespan of secrets has become radically shorter — information can be shared and accessed more easily now than ever before — classified or restricted information can be leaked, stolen, in some cases even surreptitiously modified.

There are, essentially, two choices for those in positions of power faced with this not-so-new reality.

Firstly, they can up the ante on secrecy and deception, impose harsh penalties on whistleblowers, spies, or hackers, continue developing new forms of encryption, for instance through quantum computing, though as encryption techniques develop, so do the means of decryption. Essentially: build higher walls to keep their secrets secret.

Secondly, they can embrace this reality and see it as an opportunity for a fresh political start.

In short, they need to “go legit” — stop lying, deceiving, and stealing, and instead, embrace openness, transparency, and accountability for their actions.
Of course, governments still need to be secretive when it comes to protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms — not least the privacy — of those they are are entrusted to protect: but this is a different kind of secrecy. It means encrypting and protecting the information of citizens that could otherwise be used to harm them. The shift of the focus from “state-centric” to “citizen-centric” or “human-centric” security is essential here.

States can no longer have secrets at the expense of their citizens and non-citizens for whom they have a duty of care (e.g. refugees).

What implications for #diplomacy?
Diplomacy is often understood as the art of subterfuge in the pursuit of a narrowly-defined and short-term self-interest — often the interest of a small ruling elite or its allies, rather than an actual “national interest” (and note how difficult it will be to define a precise national interest beyond the safety, security, prosperity, peacefulness or social cohesion of a nation or society).

Diplomacy in the 21st century (and possibly beyond, but that will be a matter for future generations to discuss and reflect on) must take into account these new realities: that negotiations can no longer be believed to be secret, that information spreads around the world faster than one could have imagined even ten years ago, and that, despite it being drowned in a flood of disinformation and noise, people can still distill it and understand it. We need to take citizens seriously.

Diplomacy can no longer be the remit of nation-states alone and at the same time, can no longer serve the interests as defined by the powerful (usually political actors, though increasingly also economic or even criminal ones) — certainly not of a single nation-state. The evolution of multilateral diplomacy in the 20th century — from the grudging cooperation within the League of Nations, to the desperate struggle for peace and stability that moved the founding mothers and fathers of the United Nations and its System for Human Rights — underlines this. Despite working for their national interests, nation-state actors can have an understanding of a shared, global and common good, which sometimes (if not always) supercedes the direct national or self-interest.

The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, while not a perfect process, underlines this even better: the consciousness of our interdependence, notably in the face of an increasingly devastating impact of climate change on human societies and livelihoods, can overcome to a certain degree the old reflexes of brinkmanship, though perhaps not yet completely.

When the Millennium Development Goals were derived from the 2000 UN Millennium Declaration, diplomats, development professionals, and citizens all realised (over time) that they were an imperfect and wildly insufficient framework, covering only a limited number of symptoms of poverty without tackling the underlying political conditions that had contributed to creating and were perpetuating them. A human rights-based approach was absent, as was the realisation that corruption, criminality and political manœuvering were dooming billions of people to live in dire poverty and with little resilience against climatic, political, or socio-economic shocks. The SDGs attempted to address this, though not without severe opposition from a large number of state actors, who felt, presumably, that tackling these structural drivers of poverty would be a violation of their sovereignty.

This sentiment was to a certain extent understandable, if one looks at the history of colonisation and the difficult post-colonial period of the 20th (and one may argue, the 21st) century, as well as the negative effects of unregulated globalisation that produced far more losers than winners. On the other hand, many of these “Southern” or “Eastern” countries are run by the very elites who had extracted a great deal of private wealth from the labour of their citizens — or the natural resources of their countries — without having to show a lot for it in terms of socio-economic development or even acceptable living conditions for all. The spectre of Western neo-imperialism, invoked notably whenever the universality and indivisibility of human rights is raised, was — and remains — a helpful lie for powerful interests in emerging economies (and yes, their partners in crime who are often located in advanced economies).

That is not to say that there are not many state and non-state actors — and indeed, politicians — in developing countries who are acting in good faith and with the best interest of their peoples; they may even be the majority (at least I hope so). But force of habit, business as usual, mutual mistrust, the limits of human knowledge and understanding, force us into observing the same rules for diplomatic engagement, rather than cutting to the chase and tackling problems head-on.

That is not to say, again, that there isn’t measurable and concrete progress: the world today is safer, wealthier, and healthier than ever before (especially for those who live in wealthy countries, even though they are also afflicted with inequalities and wicked social/societal/environmental problems). At the same time, this progress may be reversible — we simply don’t know whether the Long Peace is here to stay or is a relative anomaly in human history. So we’d better not take it for granted.

Why a principled human rights diplomacy is indispensable
There are reasons to be pessimistic. Right now, it seems like human rights, especially civil and political rights, are coming under increasing attack around the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. There is an apparent global crackdown on civil society and the space for freedom of thought, of opinion, of expression and association; human rights defenders, journalists, political and environmental activists, trade unionists, bloggers, are harrassed, imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, murdered; their organisations have their funding cut, are disbanded, prohibited; newspapers and other media outlets are closed down or even taken over by state actors (or corporate monopolies).

More often than not, those violations of civil and political rights have a direct link with violations of economic, social, cultural, or environmental rights: investigative journalists who uncover grand corruption, trade unionists who protest labour rights violations, defenders of minorities’ rights, environmental activists: so many different citizens who challenge injustice perpetrated or supported by state actors; so many different citizens who suffer for defending the rights of others.

These violations — sometimes committed by state actors, sometimes disguised as common crimes or human rights abuses by extremists or armed groups — happen in the vast majority of countries, the world over: they happen in the so-called global “South” as well as in the “North”. They all have in common that they are about defending power or wealth — sometimes under the guise of ideology, religion (and yes, in some cases, ideology may be the true motivation behind them) or even ‘transparency’ in the case of the UK seeking to bind its national broadcaster, the BBC, to electoral politics and limit its media independence.

And how do we plan to counter this?

We are afflicted with short attention spans. Elevator pitches. 90 seconds of speaking time in the Human Rights Council. 140 characters on Twitter. Never has the world been more complex, never has our ability to understand it greater and yet never have our attention spans been shorter.

How can we hope to find solutions to humanity’s actual problems and challenges if we can’t possibly afford the time it requires to explore and understand their root causes? The insanity of a continued nuclear arms race, which swallows billions, if not trillions of dollars, to establish a credible deterrence — or even the haunting promise of Mutually Assured Destruction (perhaps the most chillingly apt acronym in geopolitics, ever). The madness of the war on drugs, which seems to do nothing more than cost tens of thousands of lives and ruin millions more, all the while making transnational organised crime syndicates richer and more dangerous. The fallacy of the war on terror, which has done nothing, arguably, to make the world safer or tackle the grievances of those who are radicalised to the point where they believe that their mindless violence against other human beings is justified. The insanity of sexual, physical, or psychological violence against women and girls and of the many barriers to their empowerment and equal rights. The continued and increasing environmental degradation and overuse of fossil fuels, acidification (and pollution) of oceans and soils, destruction of biodiversity, to keep up unsustainable means of production and consumption. The strengthening of organised crime through the capture of polities and the symbiotic relationship between politicians and criminals (and occasionally terrorists). The rising income inequality and reduction in public services, as well as the undermining of tax systems by an industry of tax avoidance relying on the offshore financial system and shadow banking. The short thrift given to global migratory movements (not at all a bad thing per se) and the rising number of people forcibly displaced through conflict, corruption or repression. Demography and urbanisation with their challenges (like food security) for the next two billion humans who will join our merry-go-round the sun in the next 30 years. Rapid development of technologies that a vast majority of the world’s population has no access to, and even less a full understanding of, yet may have their lives irrevocably impacted by, from industrial applications of robotics to artificial intelligence. And so on, and so forth.

Avoiding the slippery slope of hypocrisy and relativism
We have to start somewhere. All human rights violations and abuses, without exception, must be condemned and countered. The very nature of human rights is that they are universal, indivisible, interdependent and inalienable. Defend one of them and you must defend all of them — and condemn all of their violations and abuses, even, or especially, when they are committed by your own allies, or worse, by your own side. That may seem counter-intuitive and contrary to the way we usually do business in diplomacy. If that is so, it shouldn’t be. People deserve honest and accountable government; they pay taxes for it and their safety and security depends on it, too. This is such a simple idea that it will perhaps come across as naive or disingenuous. It’s neither.

Rather, when attempting to craft successful human rights diplomacy, we should learn from the Master of Grand Strategy, Sun Tzu, when he held that

The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.

Condemning and countering all human rights violations and abuses, insisting on the universality, indivisibility, and inalienability of human rights — civil and political, but also economic, social, and cultural; and now, digital, allows us to make our position unassailable. This is hard and thankless work, but it will pay off in the end.

Using diplomacy in good faith
A code of conduct for diplomacy, whereby one agrees to focus only on the issue on the table, rather than attempting to distract from it, detract or disparage one’s interlocutor (whatever their status), with an openness to learn and adapt, but with a firm commitment to protecting and upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law (in that order — democracy itself, as well as the institutions of the rule of law, can be captured or coopted and frequently are). A return to formal logic — especially to call our and counter intentional fallacies and bad faith — may be salutary.

For lack of a better solution or rather, in search of actual solutions, diplomacy — especially multilateral diplomacy — is a very important tool; one that we must all commit to using in good faith. The World Humanitarian Summit, the first of its kind, held in Istanbul recently, is one of the many watershed moments that humanity is living (there seems to be another one every so many weeks, but then, these are interesting times) and is an opportunity to be seized, not merely a platform for empty rhetoric. The coming months will need to show the impact of the Summit and whether the “Grand Bargain” is worth its salt.

International law, international humanitarian law, human rights law; these are fantastic achievements of humanity and we must do all we can — and a lot of what we can do is considered “impossible” by current standards — to uphold, strengthen, and deepen it, in the interests of all, and especially future generations.

We need to question that most basic tenet of Realpolitik, Otto von Bismarck’s aphorism that “Politics is the art of the possible”, as it is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. That sort of reflection was fine in a time where the most dangerous weapon available was naval artillery and where the horrors of two world wars and the Holocaust, or the prospect of man-made climate change were all but unthinkable. It was long obsolete even by the time the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

If it does not want to sink into irrelevance during the 21st century, diplomacy needs to remember that it is, in fact, the art of making the impossible possible.

This is a guest post by Luc Dockendorf, originally posted on Medium, on June 5th, 2016.

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