02 September 2020


'Pandemic Powers: Why Human Rights Organizations Should Not Lose Focus on Civil and Political Rights' by Eda Seyhan in (2020) Journal of Human Rights Practice comments 

In response to the rise of ‘populism’ and the perceived threat to human rights that it represents, human rights advocates have argued that NGOs must speak to the economic anxieties of majority populations by increasing work on economic and social rights. In this essay, I present a counter-argument to this proposal, drawing on insights from the COVID-19 pandemic and my experiences working at Amnesty International and monitoring emergency powers during the pandemic for Covid State Watch. I argue that international human rights NGOs should retain a focus on civil and political rights for three reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic has (1) revealed and reinforced the vast repressive power of the state and consequent serious risks to civil and political rights in the global North and (2) demonstrated that human rights NGOs are often alone in challenging restrictions to civil and political rights, especially during crises. I further suggest that, in contrast to the civil and political rights sphere, (3) human rights NGOs offer little ‘value added’ in the field of economic and social rights in the global North. I conclude by proposing that human rights serve their most useful function when they protect those who few others are willing to defend, such as the vector of disease, the terrorist and the criminal. 

 Seyhan argues 

 The election of Donald Trump in the USA, the vote in the UK to leave the EU (‘Brexit’), and electoral advances by far-right politicians in Europe have prompted widespread soul-searching among human rights advocates. The implications of the rise of ‘populists’ for the future of human rights has been the subject of vigorous debate by scholars—including in this journal—and practitioners. During my time at Amnesty International, similar debates took place in working groups and planning meetings. How should human rights NGOs tackle what Amnesty International has called the rising ‘politics of demonization’ and the perceived existential threat that it poses to the international human rights system? 

While differences of opinion naturally exist, there is one answer to this question that has galvanized human rights advocates more than any other. It was partly articulated by Alston (2017) and can be summarized crudely as follows: The human rights system faces an existential threat. Countries who once championed human rights are now openly questioning their legitimacy. Inequality and exclusion are at least partly to blame. People who feel ‘badly done by as a result of … globalization-driven economic change’ have a sense of ‘fear and resentment’ that is effectively capitalized by ‘populist’ leaders (ibid: 6). Most people feel they ‘have no stake in the human rights enterprise’ which exists to protect ‘“asylum seekers”, “felons”, [and] “terrorists”’ (ibid.), in part because NGOs have focused on the rights of marginalized minorities and not widespread economic and social rights violations. Based on this narrative, many human rights advocates think that any future strategy must include significant work on economic and social rights and must attempt to win working class support. 

Based on my experience working at Amnesty International and later monitoring state repression during the COVID-19 pandemic as Covid State Watch, I believe that international human rights organizations should maintain a focus on civil and political rights in their work on the global North rather than redirecting resources towards work on economic and social rights, for three main reasons, two of which have been highlighted by the pandemic. This short essay briefly introduces the work of Covid State Watch before outlining each of these reasons, presenting them as provocations rather than a fully-fledged strategy. 

I argue that, firstly, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and reinforced the vast amount of power, and resulting threat to civil and political rights, that modern states have amassed. Secondly, the pandemic has demonstrated that very few actors with the resources and reach of human rights NGOs are willing to monitor and challenge executive power, especially during crises. Thirdly, human rights practice is far from the best tool to fight inequality and poverty—in fact, human rights NGOs have the potential to crowd out more radical demands for economic justice and thereby to serve reactionary rather than revolutionary ends. 

My argument is based on recognition that international human rights NGOs exist (whether they should is the subject of a different debate), that they have power (a brand, access to decision-makers, staff, money, and so on), and that, having weathered many crises, they are unlikely to disappear soon. When referring to NGOs, I mean large international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. My reflections in this essay are limited to the global North because I have mostly worked in and on Europe and have limited experience of human rights advocacy elsewhere. Finally, I use the distinction between economic and social rights and civil and political rights as shorthand for different areas of work by NGOs, acknowledging that there is an economic dimension to every right.