The Foreign Service Journal, June 2020

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JUNE 2020 27 Growing pushback frommany parts of the world points to the need for rethinking our approach. BY SETH D. KAPLAN T here is a growing backlash to human rights in many parts of the world. As Eastern and Southern states gain influence on the inter- national stage, they display unease toward some aspects of the existing human rights agenda. Despite these dynamics, most human rights advocates continue to func- tion as if little has changed over the past 20 years. The human rights project is infused with Western values and has long been dependent on Western power to project influence—and the result is that now, in the face of changed circumstances and new dynamics internation- Seth D. Kaplan, a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Stud- ies at the Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Human Rights in Thick and Thin Societies: Uni- versality Without Uniformity (Cambridge, 2018). He is also the author of the State Department’s “Political Transi- tions Analysis Framework” (2020) and co-author of the United Nations–World Bank flagship report “Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict and USAID’s Fragil- ity Assessment Framework” (2018). He may be reached at seth@ . FOCUS ON HUMAN RIGHTS Reclaiming Human Rights Leadership in a Multipolar World ally, its actions risk undermining the very legitimacy of its cause. The decline in human rights legitimacy takes many forms. The United Nations is increasingly unable to hold states such as Syria and China accountable for gross human rights violations. Freedom House reports that democracy, which is practically synonymous with human rights in the West, “is under assault and in retreat around the globe.” Its Freedom in the World 2020 report indicates that political rights and civil liberties have registered 14 consecutive years of decline. Meanwhile, foreign- funded civil society organizations that promote human rights are increasingly viewed suspiciously in countries around the world. In a 2014 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher note how this is true not only in authoritarian regimes such as Russia, Azerbai- jan, Turkey, Sudan, Egypt and Venezuela, but also in democra- cies such as Mexico, Malaysia, Nigeria, Hungary and Israel—all of which have passed or are considering passing legislation regulating the sector. When repressive regimes push back against human rights goals, their critiques are easy to dismiss. But when people sym- pathetic to the cause of human rights are expressing skepticism, it reflects something more fundamentally troubling. These critics do not necessarily disagree with the goals of today’s rules-based international system, but rather, as Brazilian academic Oliver