In November 2016, Oxford Dictionaries, after much discussion, debate and research, declared “post-truth” as the word of the year 2016. As per the OxfordDictionaries.com, post-truth, which is an adjective, means ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Although the concept of post-truth has been in existence for past decades, of late its impacts have been seen on national and international consensus. For instance, during the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States, populist leaders used alternative facts, which consequently led to undermine democratic process and human rights in post-truth era. Oxford Dictionaries found sharp frequency of using the word in the political contexts in 2016, and this was the reason for choosing the term as the international word of the year.

Democracy and human rights are universally accepted values. They are not only interlinked but interdependent too. A democratic society can effectively promote and protect human rights while principles of human rights facilitate democratic process. In other words, fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association as core principles of human rights are prerequisite for political pluralism and democratic process. Democratic process and control ensures separation of power for independent judiciary and the rule of law which in turn is a must for effective protection of human rights. However, rise of populism and populist leaders came forth in the post-truth era, posing threats on democracy and human rights in the world today.

In the United States, President Donald J. Trump has recently signed executive order on January 25 – Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States as one of his promises made to his supporters during the presidential campaign in order to address the economic frustrations and fear of terrorism among Americans. Trump’s executive order puts on restrictions of travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries —  Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Syria — from entering the United States with an argument “to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the U.S.”.  With the current law coming into effect, this can impact both legal and undocumented immigrants simply because this made easier for officials to investigate an immigrant suspected of posing “a risk to public safety.” Any legal immigrant can become a “removable alien” when convicted of a crime. The execution of the Trump executive orders shows politics of intolerance resulting in violating human rights and undermining entire human rights protection system.

Like US President Trump, European leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, especially during the UK’s “Brexit” campaign to leave European Union (EU) showed a similar populism as they blamed migration for economic problems. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted that the “Brexit” used “divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric” calling on officials to reject such speech.

The rise of populism legitimising politicians’ attack on human rights values, which fails to respond to human rights violations is not limited to Western countries but is in Asia as well. This can easily be traced in Asian countries like China and Philippines. China’s President Xi Jinping has restricted expression and controlling access to information. This is the crackdown on freedom of expression and access to information, resulting in human rights abuses.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has spoken publicly that he does not care about human rights. He has reportedly called for extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and users in the Philippines. According to statistics released by the national police in December 2016, there are 5,927 deaths linked to Philippine President Duterte “war on drugs” in the Philippines since July 1, 2016. As per a statement issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on October 13, 2016, it may have the jurisdiction to prosecute perpetrators of thousands of alleged extrajudicial killings in the Philippines’ crackdown on drugs. The ICC, established under the 1998 Rome Statute, is a court of last resort. It only intervenes if a country is found to be unwilling or unable to prosecute crimes under its statute, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The Philippines had joined the ICC in November 2011 and extrajudicial killings could be prosecuted by the ICC if they are “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.’

The increasing trend and similar patterns of populism has been widespread across the globe. In order to serve their interests through their own rhetoric, these populist leaders claim that the public accepts violation of human rights under the pretext of maintaining national security and peace, economic development, and solving the contemporary problems including fear of terrorism. These leaders have rejected of rights of certain segments of populations in the name of protecting others. Once human rights are undermined for a few, it opens the possibility to completely undermine such principles for all.

New York-based international human rights organization – Human Rights Watch (HRW) – rightly pointed out the rise of populism as threat to human rights in its 2017 World Report ‘Demagogues Threaten Human Rights’. The report claims that the rise of populist leaders and its accompanying rhetoric that undermines the global human rights system. Principles of human rights and democracy have been achieved through a long struggle after a vast human suffering. The threats on the universally accepted values cannot be justified again with the rhetoric built upon by populist leaders in the post truth era. Hence, there is the need of a global movement to counter the post truth rhetoric used by populist leaders with objective facts and promotion of human rights and democracy education. This can only safeguard democracy and human rights in the world.

Acknowledgement:


This blog post is an assignment by Prof. Dr Mike Hayes at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand.