« The state of the modern human rights movement is pretty dire, » said Ramy Yaacoub, who works on Middle East issues for Open Society Foundations, a grants network founded by liberal billionaire financier George Soros. “In the past, human rights groups were at the forefront. But autocratic regimes have learned from this. They are investing in their tactics and coordinating. »
Conversations with more than a dozen participants last week suggest that a global movement that flourished after World War II and saw major victories during the fall of the Soviet Union now sees itself at a crossroads.
If activists fail to find new methods, they say, dictators are likely to grow even stronger.
For Yaacoub and 1,400 others gathered at the forum, the past 15 years have been marked by far more failures than successes. Even what seemed like initial victories often turned into losses. Just a few years ago, for example, democracy activists in Sudan celebrated the ouster of a dictator; today the military leaders who took advantage of that moment have fallen the country at war again.
« We can’t even point to Tunisia anymore, » complained Andrea Prasow, executive director of The Freedom Initiative, referring to the North African country’s return to autocracy after years in which it was the Arab Spring’s only democratic success.
Prasow said he’s having trouble convincing funders to back the work of his organization, which focuses heavily on freeing political prisoners, as positive outcomes seem too few and far between. « It’s a long game, » he tries to explain to them.
Lawyers have no intention of abandoning their collective and individual struggles. But the conversation here in Oslo has centered on the need to rethink the actions and tools of the human rights movement at a time when autocracy has gained traction around the world and technology holds both promise and danger. They know that while autocratic regimes are honing their methods, countries that claim to support human rights, such as the United States, can be unreliable when their interests are at stake.
Sanaa Seif has learned from bitter experience. More than a decade ago, you joined groups successfully calling for the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. But the Arab country is now under the arguably more brutal dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the recipient of billions in US security aid. Seif’s brother Alaa Abd El-Fattah is a political prisoner there.
“I started with a very powerful moment. Since then, she has been defeated and degraded,” Seif said. « Now, I truly believe we should dream big, but we should be very pragmatic about our expectations. »
There is no solid way to quantify the reasons for activist frustration; no single data set captures every victory or defeat in a field that appeals to everyone from supporters of political prisoners to those crafting anti-corruption laws.
One often cited source is Freedom House’s « World Freedom Index, » a measure of the strength of democracy. Was on a downward slide for 17 years.
Other the datasets are fragmented at best, so rights activists are left with anecdotes. They are usually depressing: Afghanistan is back under Taliban control, which means that women’s and girls’ rights are severely limited; Iran’s Islamist regime has largely stifled a protest movement over the past year, in part by escalating executions; and many voices say that democracy in the United States, still a beacon of hope to this crowd, faces danger, in moments like the January 6, 2021 uprising at the United States Capitol.
Many human rights activists are applauding the United States and its European and Asian allies for supporting Ukraine as it tries to repel a Russian invasion, one of the main themes of this year’s forum.
But some said the war has become an excuse for Western leaders to go easy on violent governments in other parts of the world.
Azerbaijan’s strongman Ilham Aliyev would face much heavier economic sanctions from the United States and other governments, said Leyla Yunus, once the country’s political prisoner. But, as Russia’s war against Ukraine has hurt energy markets, « the West needs Azerbaijan’s oil and gas, and our dictator is enjoying it, » Yunus said.
The State Department declined to comment on US policy towards Azerbaijan or other specific cases cited in this story. And in the case of Azerbaijan, any US desire to penalize the country has been further complicated by recent diplomatic efforts to resolve it a long-standing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
A State Department spokesman, however, told POLITICO about a recent comment by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the issue more broadly. “Human rights are always on the agenda for the United States. It’s who we are, » Blinken said.
Such claims do not appease rights activists. Democracies always put their « internal economy before human rights, » said Victor Navarro, a journalist and former Venezuelan political prisoner who was present at the conference.
In the US, President Joe Biden is hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a state dinner this week, despite growing concerns over the Modi government’s autocratic actions and persecution of Muslims. In the past, US officials have emphasized that they speak privately with India on human rights issues, but they also see it as a key partner in the US rivalry with China.
In recent years, scholars and professionals have more and more he wondered if the modern human rights movement is succeeding.
Some argue that the « name and shame » tactic so often used by rights groups does not affect autocrats as it might have done in the past. They just don’t seem to care much about how they are viewed.
Scholar Jack Snyder argued in a Wise 2022 for Foreign Affairs that some strongmen have successfully cast the promotion of human rights as the work of « elitist, out-of-touch bullies pushing alien agendas to replace popular national self-determination. » (He included former US President Donald Trump, who has praised many dictators and is seeking a second term.)
Solutions proposed by academics and activists range from focusing more on issues of economic equity and inequality to greater cross-border collaboration between rights organisations.
At the Oslo conference, activists also focused increasingly on the potential of using new technologies to help their causes. Some are sending cryptocurrency to dissidents in authoritarian countries as a means of supplementing their assets.
But tyrants have also learned to use technology to police, outwit, and further oppress their populations. And authoritarian regimes are collaborating with each other on the technological front – regimes in the Middle East are doing it now using Chinese surveillance tools. Iran and Venezuela have signed a number of cooperation agreements on science, technology and beyond in part to challenge US sanctions on both countries. The arrival of powerful new versions of artificial intelligence is only increasing the concerns of rights activists.
Dictators have also learned to put a veneer of legality and respectability on their actions, the dissidents note. More autocrats know they no longer win so-called 99 percent elections, but a more reasonable figure comes along even after many manipulations.
Activists in Norway could not think of many successes in recent years. Some pointed to the growing awareness of far-right extremism, the release of some political prisoners (although this is often accompanied by new arrests), and efforts by social media companies to prevent radicalization online.
And they stressed that raising awareness of rights violations is still important. China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims would be even more severe were it not for the global outrage directed at Beijing, said Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur formerly detained in one of China’s internment camps.
« Criticism hasn’t freed everyone, but it has helped some people regain their freedom, » he said.
The goals of the Oslo Freedom Forum include connecting dissidents and activists so they can exchange ideas and know they are not alone in their struggles.
Political prisoners attending the event, organized by the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, bond with others who have gone through similar experiences. Much of the program features presentations from dissidents who have survived everything from solitary confinement to assassination attempts.
There’s a feel-good room for people who need to decompress between trauma-triggering conversations. But there also continues to be humor in the face of adversity.
One speaker mentioned how nice it was to be in Norway and not be followed by the security forces.
« You know, I miss them, » joked Mzwandile Masuku, a Swazi human rights lawyer, of his usual pursuers. « I wonder what they are doing. »