Human rights for righteous humans

by: in Law
Blog Diego Fallah student blog

The debate around the universality of human rights is legitimate and long-lasting. While most people instantly think of cultural and religious relativity, invoking the sharia and indigenous traditions as obstacles to universality, new forms of questioning universality - and even human rights in general - are proliferating like never before since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. 

Right-wing populism as a menace to the universality of human rights 

The victory of Jair Bolsonaro in the last Brazilian presidential elections perfectly illustrate this tendency, that can also be observed in other countries such as Duterte's Philippines, Trump's USA and Orban’s Hungary. With a campaign based on penal populism and total disrespect for minorities, Bolsonaro was elected using two types of dangerous discourses towards human rights.

First, the former captain relativizes human rights under the motto "direitos humanos para humanos direitos" (human rights to righteous humans). Combined with his contemptuous views towards women, LGBT+, indigenous people and quilombola communities, the catchphrase separates human rights from its emancipatory dimension. In the end, only the good Christian and law-abiding citizen deserves to be entitled to fundamental rights. An example of the first strategy was the adaptation of the Ministry of Human Rights of Brazil, that became the Ministry of the Women, Family and Human Rights. The ministry will be led by Damares Alvez, a lawyer with connections to the evangelical church. Among the projects defended by Bolsonaro’s program, are the support for the total criminalization of abortion as a mean to defend the rights of unborn children, the attack on indigenous land demarcations and a public security agenda with the focus on the police/military brutality and revoking gun control legislation. Bolsonaro’s plans for security are very extreme and resemble the war on drugs led by Duterte in the Philipines, that costed more than 12.000 lives between 2016 and 2017.

This logic reveals the second approach of Bolsonaro towards human rights: going further on relativizing human rights to completely denying the importance and existence of basic fundamental rights. Since catching the public’s eye, Bolsonaro preached the logic “a good criminal is a dead criminal”, and recently affirmed that an offender cannot be treated as a “normal human being”, in order to justify a state of war in the country. Bolsonaro also has attacked human rights NGOs, stating that these work with an “inversion of values” to “protect criminals”. In addition, two months before his election, when the UN Human Rights Committee made a declaration defending the political rights of former president Lula, Bolsonaro attacked the UN by affirming that “if I become president I will leave the UN, this institution has no purpose (…) it is a meeting of communists of people that has no compromise with South America, at least”.

By using these two strategies, Bolsonaro both distorts the purpose of human rights, by limiting their universality and emancipatory dimension, and denies the authority of human rights, especially in areas such as public security and the monitoring of human rights obligations by the UN, NGOs and social movements.

But how to counter that? The victory of Bolsonaro confirms that human rights in Brazil, one of the biggest democracies in the world, are completely under attack. However, feminists, the Brazilian Black Movement, the LGBT+ community, NGOs and social movements are preparing to resist the next four years, and both national and international authorities should make efforts to supervise the new Government’s attacks on human rights. The investment in human rights information and education should be one of the methods. However, the level of disdain to the universality of rights found in extremist discourses demands immediate reactions. In the case of Brazil, the strengthening of the Inter-American System of Human Rights and the action of the UN Treaty Bodies in reporting and receiving individual complaints are important. Moreover, human rights should have the power to influence diplomatic relations and international trade. Only a true commitment to the universality of human rights can protect the ones that are not “righteous” in the authoritarian eyes of the rising extreme-right.

  Written by Diego FallahMore blogs on Law Blogs Maastricht