The impact of new authoritarianism on human rights

Representatives of various organizations gathered in Geneva discussed the situation in the United States, the Philippines and Brazil, in light of authoritarian governments that have a sharp anti-rights discourse.

On March 15, the side event “New Authoritarianism: Implications to Human Rights and Civil Society” was held at the UN Human Rights Council, having been organized jointly by CELS and organizations from other countries and regions. The initiative brought together activists from Brazil, the Philippines and the United States – three countries with extreme right-wing governments – for a debate on the growing influence of these leaders and movements in the world.

The speakers included Jean Wyllys, a former congressman and LGBTI activist from Brazil; Jamil Dakwar, from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); Chito Gascon, from the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines; and Risa Kaufman, from the Center for Reproductive Rights in the United States. Susan Wilding of CIVICUS, an international organization headquartered in South Africa, served as the moderator.

Discourse of hate and violence against groups and minorities

The new authoritarianism, like the old, identifies internal enemies of the nation: this was one of the conclusions of the debate. In that vein, the former congressman and LGBTI activist Jean Wyllys described how he had to leave Brazil and refrain from serving his third term as a federal deputy due to the attacks against him, which intensified during the electoral campaign of Jair Bolsonaro. Marked by a discourse of hate, religious fundamentalism and an appeal to homophobia and other prejudices, these attacks that had targeted him since 2011 began to include threats against his life and that of his family. The former congressman sees his case as the precedent for a method of action that was later accentuated and extended to other groups in Brazil. The fact that he had to leave the country without achieving effective protective measures that would have allowed him to continue his work shows the strategy’s effectiveness.

Jamil Dakwar, meanwhile, highlighted the continuity there is between the ideology of hate and movements such as white supremacy that exist in the United States. These groups not only speak, they also take action, sometimes in extremely violent ways, such as in the attacks against the Muslim community in New Zealand. The panelists at the event stressed that these processes did not begin with the last presidential elections in the United States or Brazil. In the first case, at least since the 2001 attack against the Twin Towers, there has been a notable increase in Islamophobia and xenophobia, along with concrete measures and human rights violations committed in the name of national security and sovereignty.

“Traditional values” as a pretext for hate based on gender

It was also discussed that in some countries, gender debates are focused on the family and so-called “traditional values.” In the United States, according to Risa Kaufman of the Center for Reproductive Rights, this is manifested in discourses about protecting against religious discrimination or protecting religious freedom, which serve as pretexts to promote gender stereotypes and restrict women and girls’ rights to autonomy over their bodies. The laws, regulations and policies that limit access to sexual and reproductive health services particularly affect communities that face multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination, such as migrants, black people, people with disabilities and LGBTI persons.

On a similar note, Jean Wyllys stressed that the attacks against him were based on the fact that he is homosexual and forms part of the sex and gender diverse community. Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign promoted that same hate speech, characterized by fake news and aimed at the LGBTI community and other groups as well. Dakwar recalled that while the increased presence of women, LGBTI people, Muslims and other groups in the United States Congress has allowed their voices to be amplified, it has also been accompanied by attacks, animosity and hate against those legislators – not because of what they defend, but rather due to their identities.

Attacks on dissent: social media and fake news

The panelists spoke about the broader context of attacks on any attempt at dissent originating with the media and press, legislators or activists. In the Philippines, a senator who initiated an investigation in the Senate regarding extrajudicial executions that were taking place was charged without evidence for supposed links to drug lords. She has been incarcerated for two years. Officials also tried to withdraw authorization for a media outlet that exposed these abuses, denouncing it for alleged tax evasion and detaining its editor. According to Dakwar, the discourses that characterize the media as enemies of the state are part of that authoritarian strategy to accumulate power.

Another of the characteristics of the new authoritarianism is the use of information technologies and the dissemination of fake news. Dakwar indicated that facts are no longer relevant in a world in which the very president of the United States retweets from anti-Islamic accounts, without ever considering he might be doing something wrong. This communication is based on the idea that there is a threat out there, and therefore it does not draw from the reality of the facts but, rather, from fear alone. Chito Gascon noted that in a “post-truth” world, there are no guardians of the truth; anyone can speak up and say, “that’s the way it is.” Lies, when they are repeated so many times, become credible. In addition, the general framework for debate is not based on what is good for society as a whole. Also, as a corollary, historically discriminated groups do not have the same access to means of expression in order to counteract these narratives based on hate and prejudice.

Highly popular governments and the discourse of “the other” that must be fought

According to Chito Gascon, the popularity of current right-wing governments is an aspect that singularizes the “new authoritarianism” in contrast to the old. With regard to this, the chair of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines recalled the broad support seen for President Rodrigo Duterte in that country. His campaigns for fighting drugs are based on the policy of “shooting before asking questions” and have already entailed the execution of 20,000 people – 5,000 officially recognized by the police. Far from prompting rejection or dismay, these policies are supported by 80% of the population, and the so-called “Duterte effect” is spreading in the region.

The reason for this popular support, according to Gascon, is that these leaders take advantage of dissatisfaction with democratic institutions by identifying an internal enemy that must be fought. The democratic experience is presented as failing with regard to people’s hopes and aspirations, particularly in developing countries, and with regard to the persistence of poverty and corruption. This “other,” which in the Philippine case are drug users and traffickers, is ascribed responsibility for economic and social problems. In the United States, Dakwar noted that the idea of “crisis” or “national emergency” seeks to justify policies that violate the rights of refugees and migrants. Indigenous communities, in turn, are victims of stigmatization on the part of public authorities themselves, and they are identified as an obstacle to development projects that are increasingly being implemented on traditional lands.

Sometimes, human rights themselves are positioned as the enemy to be fought. In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s campaign speeches associated human rights with “criminals’ rights,” and human rights defenders are stigmatized. In the Philippines, this association is direct to the point where the Commission on Human Rights, with its acronym of CHR, was dubbed “CHRIMINAL” on social media. “Criminals” are being called “humans” and the notion that people who committed a crime chose to lose their rights as soon as they took that action, is gaining traction within state institutions. Due process guarantees and the presumption of innocence are presented as obstacles for guaranteeing the security of an entire country. In the United States, a recent FBI report classified some organizations that work on issues of racism as “black identity extremists,” transforming groups that fight for equality and resist the systematic violation of their rights into threats to society and to national security.

Taking the challenge seriously

“The situation is complex, but we need to take the challenge seriously,” Gascon said, “because it’s happening on a global scale.” The ideals of human rights and democracy, which we fought so hard to build, are being undermined. The idea that human rights are universal is being threatened, not by a denial of these rights but by the notion that they are not universal after all and that certain elements of society don’t have rights.

Gascon sustained that it is necessary to change the narrative, not only in relation to the state but also with social participation. People must be encouraged to discuss what is important for them: marginalized and excluded communities and lives are important, and the state must embody a higher standard. We must organize ourselves on the ground, on the streets, mobilizing society for debate, reaffirming the need for universal values while strengthening institutional checks and the separation of powers.

The Philippine defender said it is important to insist on defending rights from whatever institutional position one occupies and with the tools at hand. In the United States, despite threats, powerful groups are reacting and demanding “an end to this hate” and “an end to the notion of rejecting the other,” as well as defending universal human rights values, such as the lawyers that combed the country’s airports to defend people of the Muslim faith from the “Muslim ban.” If we don’t react, Gascon warned, we will be facing an existential threat, because the new forms of authoritarianism will not only undermine democracy – they will topple it.