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The International Human Rights Regime in a Multipolar World

Thijs van Lindert wrote “The International Human Rights Regime in a Multipolar World” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Shifting Paradigms (Humanity in Action Press 2016). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.

Power Shifts, Foreign Policies, and the Globalization of Human Rights

Human rights gained their importance only after a bumpy and long road covered with conflicts and clashes. They were born out of power shifts and brute wars rather than peaceful international relations. The creation of the League of Nations in 1919 resulted directly from World War I. But the predecessor to the United Nations (UN), which had via various treaties attempted to protect collective minority rights (as opposed to individual human rights), failed precisely because the world’s most powerful state did not embark on the project.

The United States (US) congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Later, the fall of Nazi Germany and its dark legacy in global history would pave the way for architects of individual human rights to construct international norms, conventions, treaties, and institutions. As Steven Hopgood argues,

“The Second World War and the Holocaust gave irresistible impetus to institutional innovation. The shock of a world destroyed saw advocates redouble their efforts to restore the authority of humanist institutions via the Genocide Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Nuremberg, and the idea of crimes against humanity as justiciable international law, and the Geneva Conventions of 1949.” (1)

Most human rights activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) consider the UDHR, adopted in 1948 by the UN General Assembly in Palais de Chaillot, to be the birth certificate of our human rights regime. And yet, according to a growing number of scholars, it was nothing but a false start in the globalization process of human rights. (2) They argue that it was only after Jimmy Carter’s administration endorsed human rights language in US foreign policy that human rights gained momentum and arrived on every continent (though not every country).

Although it is perhaps too much to give the US all of the credit for the globalization of human rights, the usage of human rights as a welcome addition to foreign policy was swiftly copied by other states. In the bipolar world of the Cold War era, human rights became part of a fierce ideological struggle. Today’s codification and monitoring of both civil and political rights and – albeit to a lesser extent – economic, social, and cultural rights, benefitted from the muscle flexing between Washington and Moscow.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, politicians as well as scholars believed that economic and political liberalization would together transform the world. Francis Fukuyama famously pronounced “the end of history” as international free trade, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights inevitably began to spread across the globe. (3) Under US supervision and active (sometimes armed) backing, former Soviet Republics and satellite states transformed into democratic market economies, trade barriers were taken down, and globalization accelerated.

It was also during the 1990s that human rights peaked. Despite (and sometimes because of) the atrocities in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Sierra Leone, important tribunals and institutions were established to ensure the protection of human rights and to internationally counteract the impunity of human rights violators. Prominent examples are the installation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (1993), the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia (1993) and Rwanda (1994), and the Rome Statute (1998) that gave way to the International Criminal Court (2002). Human rights spread as international norms, through institutions and trials, leading to (at least some form of) socialization and internalization by states around the world. (4)

Throughout the 1990s, non-state actors promoting human rights became more and more influential in shaping today’s human rights regime. International NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch helped with the architecture and construction of global human rights institutions. Nonetheless, the active promotion of democratic values and enforcement of human rights by Western states has almost always aligned with economic and geopolitical interests. As Samuel Huntington once stated:

“Hypocrisy, double standards, and ‘but nots’ are the price of universalist pretensions. Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; non-proliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle.” (5)

Sceptics say that “human rights,” “democracy,” and the “rule of law” are only words serving as a three-colored wrapping paper to fulfil other foreign policy goals in the Global South. Sadly, two decades after this quote was written, it is in essence still largely accurate.

On the one hand, human rights language is not neutral, but aligned with the interests of mighty states. On the other hand, without the often arbitrary application of human rights language in foreign policies of great powers, the people of the world would be left with very little. The globalization of human rights language flourished when human rights were (mis)used in foreign policy agendas of the key players in the international system. Especially in the last decade of the 20th century, human rights easily sailed along with the overseas policies of Western states.

However, just as quickly as human rights gained meaning and materialized under the influence of the conflict and power dynamics of the 20th century, they might lose their significance. Whereas the major events of the last century contributed to the creation of an international human rights regime, the conflicts of the 2000s rather corroded it. The 21st century began with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and following wars in (but stretching well beyond) Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iraq War was conducted without a UN mandate and both wars involved severe human rights violations by Western states. The way that the declared “war on terror” was (and is) waged by the US – with the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, broad scale torture, sketchy surveillance practices, extra-judicial drone killings, and countless civilian deaths – undermined the very human rights system the US had helped put into place.

Changing Constellations

Perhaps the illiberal responses of the US following the 9/11 terrorist attacks were symptoms of a liberal superpower in decline. It demonstrated the bankruptcy of hegemonic global governance. The subsequent financial crisis of 2008 intensified the widespread belief that global governance structures cannot, and should not, be grounded in claims of Western supremacy. With the rise of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) and other emerging powers, the US’s and other Western states’ power is deteriorating.

Such a transition of economic, cultural, political, and military power is not a process that will be completed overnight. Traditional powers still have a lot of sway in global politics. But whereas the US is still by far the world’s number one military spender and the EU has the single biggest world market, emerging states (most notably China) are catching up quickly, both in geopolitical and economic terms. Their growing prominence brings many uncertainties for global governance, for it will affect the prevailing norms of international regimes.

The effects of the emergence of states in the Global South and East have thus been on the radar of academics and practitioners working on or in the fields of international security, finance, and trade. Nonetheless, these changing power constellations seem to have caught little attention from those who work in the field of human rights. Viewing the implications of emerging states’ influence as limited to the realms of the prior is, however, utterly naïve since bankers, strategists, and merchants will not be the only ones affected by the changing power dynamics of an insecure and volatile world.

Emerging states and their relations with international institutions and traditional powers will undeniably shape the future of global governance. Yet it is still largely unclear to what extent they will impact the liberal world order constructed after World War II. Will they consent to the international order that has been created during several decennia of Western dominance, or will they contest this liberal order in their foreign policies?

Perhaps this is not a case of either/or as the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Rising powers will neither completely accept current dominant values nor abandon those institutions that were developed to discuss, defend, and uphold them. For emerging states, the adaptation to or frustration with the liberal world order will depend on their own geopolitical interests. The evidence so far, however, demonstrates that emerging states are determined to claim more power on the global stage. And sometimes they succeed. In 2009, for instance, the G8 was officially replaced by the G20 (which had already accommodated BRICS for ten years). In the field of human rights, the power of Western states was restricted with the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006.

Global organizations such as UN bodies and the Bretton Woods institutions are often more rapidly created than adjusted and multilateral institutional reforms remain slow. While traditional powers are unwilling to reform institutions that still echo the post-1945 world order, emerging states in the Global South and East are becoming more assertive in regional and global politics. The annual BRICS summits that have been held since 2009 and the recent creation of the New Development Bank indicate that if emerging powers are not (better) accommodated in existing institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN Security Council, they will eventually circumvent and undermine those institutions by creating alternative ones.

Given these developments, many scholars in the field of Political Science observe that interstate cooperation is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. (6) They predict a future of deadlocks and stalemates in important fields of global governance, such as trade, finance, security, or climate. Of course, a better representation of today’s international constellation in important global forums will not automatically ensure a more effective functioning of the system. On the contrary, a more equitable distribution of power among the world’s different key players may very well lead to decisive inaction rather than active decisiveness. At the same time, ongoing human rights violations in places like Syria, Sudan, North Korea, and Israel/Palestine continue to prove that gridlock scenarios are already more norm than exception when it comes to transnational human rights governance.

A Look Ahead

What will remain questionable are the effects of geopolitical power shifts on human rights in years to come. In order to assess the influence of the group of emerging states on the international human rights order, we must differentiate between its constituents. Indonesia is very different from Saudi Arabia, just like Mexico differs from Turkey.

Though the common use of the BRICS abbreviation nowadays suggests otherwise, it is also incorrect to consider these five states as one coherent block.

They have diverging interests, deviating beliefs, and hold different expectations about their (future) role in global governance. While some states might become active supporters of international human rights protection, others might use their growing influence to (further) frustrate its functionality.

When it comes to attitudes toward the human rights regime, emerging states can be roughly conceptually divided into three clusters. The first one consists of states that want to change the dominant rules of the current system. These game changers desire to set new rules by counteracting the functionality of today’s human rights bodies. A second grouping is comprised of states that are neither supportive nor adverse to the regime, holding a neutral attitude towards human rights. These states may use human rights language cleverly to serve instrumental purposes, but would protest the international human rights regime if it were to not align with narrow national interests. The last group entails states that act as responsible human rights protagonists in domestic, regional, and global governance structures. States in this group are open to progressive interpretations of human rights, willing to accept widening international criminal law, and, at times, international norm entrepreneurs.

While state behavior and foreign policy strategies are all but static, the stances of some states for the decades to come are easier to envisage than others. The rise of China and (re)emergence of Russia thus far challenges the international liberal order built around human rights, democracy and international criminal justice. They are wary of international institutions, underscore the importance of state sovereignty, and abstain from progressive interpretations of human rights obligations.

As conservative members of the Security Council, China and Russia often succeed in blocking action to protect human rights globally. Just as other more authoritarian states like Iran and Saudi Arabia, they are rigid believers in the inviolability of sovereignty and are reluctant to embrace new concepts in international law. The relatively new doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP), which was adopted during the 2005 World Summit, died quickly after Russia and China stated that NATO misused its UNSC mandate for an intervention in Libya under Gaddafi’s reign in 2011. For these states, NATO’s (alleged) mission creep was reason enough to block any ideas in support of a humanitarian intervention in Syria (when Western powers still considered this). While many of these states officially partake in the UN human rights apparatus, authoritarian states constantly plea for more state-led oversight mechanisms as opposed to more independent institutional procedures. Since state sovereignty is always sacrificed when the international human rights regime gains ground, the latter should not expect much backing from these kind of authoritarian states in the near future.

If not in authoritarian states such as China and Russia, perhaps it will be in Brazil’s, India’s, and/or South Africa’s interest to adopt the human rights language in their external policies, just as it has been for traditional powers? Despite their existing internal human rights deficiencies, they at least seem willing to improve domestic human rights conditions. These liberal democracies within the BRICS consortium thus share a commitment to human rights in domestic affairs and might therefore be more willing to actively support human rights abroad. International human rights NGOs are well aware of the decisive role liberal emerging powers could play. Amnesty International, for instance, has opened up national offices in both India and Brazil. Amnesty’s Chief Executive of India and Brazil’s Executive Director called upon India and Brazil to take up their responsibility as reliable guardians of human rights globally:

“There are still many in both India and Brazil who believe that human rights are a Western concept. This is a mistake. Human rights are universal aspirations, rooted in basic conceptions of dignity. Both India and Brazil have rich traditions of tolerance and justice that promote these values. As emerging global leaders, India and Brazil share a responsibility towards shaping a new global order that is friendlier to human rights. (…) India and Brazil, themselves former colonies, must begin to provide the kind of inspirational leadership on human rights that others have failed to do. Only then can they become the kinds of genuine superpowers that others have failed to be.” (7)

However, most emerging states have opted thus far for a realist approach in their foreign policy in which they see little room to include human rights language. Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, former High Commissioner for Human Rights, once stated that, “The culture of human rights must be a popular culture if it is to have the strength to withstand the blows that will inevitably come. Human-rights culture must be a popular culture if it is to be able to innovate and to be truly owned at the national and sub-national levels.” Notwithstanding this exhortation, human rights also require dissemination through the foreign policies of states across the globe if they are to be truly owned, promoted, and defended at the regional and global level.

Many emerging states have not (yet) capitalized on their potential to become international human rights promoters. In the closing statement of the sixth BRICS summit in Brazil in 2014, the state leaders mention human rights no less then eleven times. But are some of these emerging states ready to walk the talk? Jorge Castañeda expects no significant change from emerging states in the near future:

“They might be growing economic actors, but they are not diplomatic ones, and so as they strive to gain greater political status without a road map, they fall back on their default option: the rhetoric and posturing of bygone days, invoking national sovereignty and non-intervention, calling for limited international jurisdiction, and defending the application of different standards to different nations.” (8)

Although he might be right for now, this could very well change over time. This will much depend on each specific state on the rise. The way that Brazil, India, and other states will approach the human rights norms and regime in their foreign policies might differ greatly. While Brazil is located in a remarkably peaceful region with other liberal democracies, India is in a more troubled neighborhood. Moreover, as a nuclear power, India might have more interest in hard power issues while Brazil, with its limited military capabilities, more in the softer human rights regime. And whereas the clout of Brazil and India on the global stage definitely increases, “emerging” South Africa is not very likely to turn into a prominent player outside its own region.

In short, human rights need to gain the active support of at least some emerging states, if they are to maintain significant meaning in the coming decades of this century. The US, France, Great Britain, and other traditional supporters of the human rights regime will in light of the global power shifts have less instruments to influence its underlying norms.

While human rights in the 20th century thrived on the external policies of these states, the cost to keep preaching this language to trade partners is increasing and might just get too high in the long run. This is also true for the EU, perhaps one of the most credible human rights promoters, whose normative power is slowly fading away. (9)

Emerging liberal states will prove to be crucial actors in mediating the diverging interests of “traditional” powers and emerging states in the Global South. They will often hold conflicting views on essential aspects of the human rights regime and its universal claims. The coming decades will show whether these emerging liberal states are both willing and able to help bridge the normative gaps that currently exist between more progressive and conservative powers that hold a lot of sway in today’s geopolitical clashes in places like Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine. The future of the international human rights regime lies in their hands. 

•     •     • 

About the Author 

Thijs van Lindert is an Analyst at the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. He previously worked as an Analyst at the Strategic Studies project of Amnesty International and he participated in the Diplomatic Studies Programme of the Clingendael Institute, The Hague. Van Lindert has also worked at the European Parliament as a Pat Cox Fellow and co-edited two books: The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World and Shifting Power and Human Rights Diplomacy: Brazil (Amnesty). He holds an MSc in Sociology and an MSc in International Relations.


van Lindert, Thijs. “The International Human Rights Regime in a Multipolar World" In Shifting Paradigms, edited by Johannes Lukas Gartner, 122-130. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2016.


The author and editor thank Allister Chang for his dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


1. Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 12.

2. See: Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 2010); Aryeh Neier, The International Human Rights Movement: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007).

3. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

4. Thomas Risse, Stephen C. Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

5. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 184.

6. See: Benjamin Barber, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); Ian Bremmer, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World (New York: Penguin Books, 2012); Richard N. Haass, “The Age of Nonpolarity: What Will Follow U.S. Dominance?” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 3 (2008): 44-56; Thomas Hale, Jr., David Held, and Kevin Young, Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation Is Failing When We Need It Most (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

7. G. Ananthapadmanabhan and Atila Roque, “India and Brazil: Time for a New Human Rights Partnership,” The Indian Express, Mar. 29, 2013.

8. Jorge G. Castañeda, “Not Ready for Prime Time,” Foreign Affairs 89, no. 5 (2010): 122.

9. See: Doutje Lettinga and Thijs van Lindert, “The EU’s Human Rights Promotion in a Changing World Order,” Next Generation Europe, no. 1 (2014); Susi Dennison and Anthony Dworkin, “Towards an EU Human Rights Strategy for a Post-Western World,” European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief, no. 23 (2010).

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