Photo: MikeGoehler/

Efforts to promote human rights are increasingly being challenged. Sadly, a number of new worries have emerged this year.

Based on the often disastrous consequences of mainly Western interventions in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, it is now increasingly argued that we should recognize the concept of sovereign states and non-interference in another nation’s domestic affairs, because quite clearly, we just mess things up. In line with this argument, we should tell ourselves that we can do little to improve things and that the struggle for better lives has to be fought by the natives of poorly governed countries themselves.

Another closely related development and a key factor behind these interventions, is our current preoccupation with security ever since 9/11. Even development programs are increasingly prioritized with a view of whether or not they may contribute to our security. When the West shifted its position on President Assad in Syria, the message was clear: “If you are on our side in the fight (against global jihad) then we do not mind who you are, what you stand for or what you do”. 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are back in a new global war where the need to win trumps our basic values.

On top of this, there is a third trend, towards a new Cold War. The former Cold war was a political competition for the loyalty of nation states, a race for military superiority on a global scale and every aspect of life was seen through the lens of this struggle for world supremacy between two ideologies. And while we were proud of our democracy and values in the West, we allowed dictators in several countries to rule and be supported as long as they chose to stay with us and not with Moscow.

During the last few months, there have been lots of bad news for human rights defenders. The aftermath of the attempted coup in Turkey is one example, and the last, less than three weeks ago, the election of a new American president who during the election campaign repeatedly revealed that human rights will not be high on his agenda for the coming 4 years. Whether he was talking about his attitude to women, to Muslims, or the use of torture, he showed contempt for everything we stand for. Sadly, we may see the undermining of the very foundation of the international human rights system, spearheaded by the US and giving freer hands to autocrats all over the world.

Our efforts to promote human rights and values which we hold as very basic will be increasingly challenged. To those who argue against interventions I will say that yes, the kinds of intervention we have seen during the last two decades, since the Balkan wars, have been very problematic and often very negative. And yes, the struggle for human rights has primarily to be fought by natives of the countries where this is highly needed. But just like in South Africa during apartheid, there is an urgent need for international solidarity with individuals, groups and organizations who struggle hard in their own countries to uphold the values we cherish so much. And we have to believe that the pain felt by a Chinese or an Iraqi if hit by batons or tortured in prison is no less than the pain felt by a Norwegian or a Russian in similar situations.

On the day after the US election, a professor of coastal ecology at Columbia University in New York, Dr. Drew, wrote an open letter to his students. I will quote a part of this letter because it sums up what is at stake.

“Last night we saw that the historical legacies of racism, sexism and ignorance still run deep within large parts of our country. It is OK to feel hurt and surprised. It is OK to question the future of our country, and our country’s role in global policies and phenomena that we study here in class.

We are holding class today because what I teach you is now even more important. You are going to have to up your game to operate in a culture that does not value the beliefs you hold dear. I am honored to teach you, to give you the tools and skills you will need to be a bulkhead against ignorance, and to help you find ways to intelligently speak from a position of authority.

So yes, we are having class, and yes we are going to learn, and yes we will be able to use this information to the betterment of our country’.

This letter captures the urgency human rights’ fighters and researchers feel and inspires to continued committment: Yes, we are having class today, we are having class tomorrow and we will continue to have class as long as it takes, for the betterment of the societies in which we live.        

Gunnar M. Sørbø, Senior Researcher at CMI and Chair of the Rafto Board, December 2016