5th Jun 2023


When geopolitics trump human rights, we are all losers

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For a fleeting moment this month, global attention switched from guns to people and from geopolitics to human rights. Many were too busy fighting wars or speaking the "language of power" to pay attention.

But for those who did find the time, the United Nations "special days" in March dedicated to gender equality, fighting anti-Muslim discrimination and eliminating racism, were a sobering reality check on the state of human rights across the world.

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  • Muslim women face "triple discrimination" because of their gender, ethnicity, and faith, a reality also underlined by an EU-funded study on evidence of gendered Islamophobia in many parts of the European media

Seventy-five years after they signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the gap is widening between states' commitments to basic rights and the harsh reality of their actions. Sadly, the universal human rights story has no heroes. Violations take place in 'good' democracies and 'bad' autocracies, in the Global West and the Global South.

Governments are shamelessly and often violently abusing, discriminating and harassing their own citizens, on the basis of gender, race, religion and more. Despite international conventions which protect their rights, ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees face even more dire treatment.

Tunisia's president Kais Saied, who stands accused of racist rants and actions against undocumented black African migrants, is the latest case in point.

The EU's self-image may still be that of a benign power and a force for good. But talk of 'European values' will continue to ring hollow unless backed up by a real commitment to human rights at home and abroad. That means more efficient and humane Fortress Europe policies which are aligned with international norms.

It also means efforts to save the crumbling global human rights infrastructure by not allowing geopolitics to trump human rights.

It used to matter when Western governments' upbraided nations or imposed sanctions on them for human rights violations. But as human rights become just one more geopolitical weapon in the ever-growing offensive arsenal of so-called 'Great Powers', Western denunciations of rights abuses have lost their impact and their sting.

The West's policy of selective treatment of nations based on their geopolitical usefulness or uselessness, means that its human rights critiques are largely ignored. Allegations of double standards abound.

Yet, even as they rage against the West's 'colonial' mindsets, many leaders of the Global South engage in flagrant abuses of their citizens' rights and deny the humanity of their ethnic minorities.

In rich and poor nations, gender disparities are worsening in the face of cascading global crises — including the Covid-19 pandemic, violent conflict, and climate change — coupled with the backlash against women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. Unless laws change radically, gender equality is 300 years away, according to UN Women.

Patriarchy fights back

From Ukraine to the Sahel to Afghanistan, crisis and conflict affect women and girls first and worst. In Iran, repression against the women-led revolution is on the rise.

The patriarchy is also fighting back in the EU, not least in Poland and Hungary.

Meanwhile, as underlined by on the International Day Against Islamophobia on 15 March, suspicion, discrimination and outright hatred towards Muslims has risen to "epidemic proportions" in many parts of the world. Muslim women face "triple discrimination" because of their gender, ethnicity, and faith, a reality also underlined by an EU-funded study on evidence of gendered Islamophobia in many parts of the European media.

Here too, geopolitics matter.

Increasingly fierce geopolitical rivalry means that Uyghurs in China are in the international spotlight, the Rohingya in Myanmar much less so.

Eager to court Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, the US and the EU remain reluctant to voice even muted concern — at least in public — about the treatment of Indian Muslims.

The human rights of Palestinians have been ignored for decades. Discrimination against minorities and Muslim sects is also rife in Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan.

As it does on gender equality, the EU can and should set a better example.

But the bloc has tied itself in knots over terminology by insisting that it can only speak of "anti-Muslim hatred", not Islamophobia, because international human rights law protects individuals, not religions.

Legal semantics apart, the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency has warned that European Muslims face an avalanche of discriminatory policies when seeking jobs and accessing public or private services.

Progress on fighting racism is just as patchy as the EU Commission struggles to ensure that member states abide by the ground-breaking "anti-racism action plan" which promises, among other actions, to tackle systemic and institutionalised racism.

The blueprint's impact is limited, however, as racism spreads across Europe due not only to bigots, populists and far-right groups but because their rhetoric and, increasingly their policies, are being embraced by mainstream politicians.

If the trend continues, the post of European Commissioner for Equality could be at stake.

Implementation of the anti-racism plan is also stymied by a fragmented and piecemeal approach with different Commissioners and "coordinators" responsible for different pro-equality strategies.

The result is competition rather than coordination.

Allowing the global human rights agenda to unravel is not an option.

The EU must therefore back the UN's Human Rights 75 initiative at the end of the year to rekindle the spirit of the original declaration made in 1948 — and also demand a similar recommitment from all its 27 members.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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