The Rise Of Populism And The Threat To Human Rights

Shackled hand with multiple chains

2016 may have been a disaster in terms of world politics, but it succeeded in shaking us all out of our apathy. The wave of dissent that had been rumbling in Europe, America and South-East Asia for years, finally exploded like an overdue volcanic eruption, sweeping away many of the basic principles of dignity & equality many of us take for granted and threatening to end many human rights’ we have enjoyed as a global population since the end of the Second World War.

On 20th January 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated and became the 45th President of the United States of America.  At the end of March 2017, British Prime Minister, Theresa May is set to trigger Article 50, an act which will formally begin Brexit. France, Germany and Holland all have elections this year and all have strong far-right contenders.

Could this new populism trend take the world in a completely different direction to that of globalisation and capitalism, the prevailing philosophies since the First World War? And how would this affect global and domestic human rights?

What is populism?

Populism is notoriously difficult to define despite the best efforts of academics, Immigration and human rights lawyers and government officials.  It can encompass far-right and far-left ideologies. Populists can be devotees of Ayn Rand or Lenin; environmentalists or drill-baby-drill climate change deniers.

What defines populism is not necessarily what those who support a populist party believe in, but the idea that the establishment is not supporting or listening to the ‘common people’ and needs to be replaced.

According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, populism is defined as a political party claiming to represent the common people.  A recent paper from Harvard Kennedy School of Government entitled: Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash, states that “Populism reflects deep cynicism and resentment of existing authorities, whether big business, big banks, multinational corporations, media pundits, elected politicians and government officials, intellectual elites and scientific experts, and the arrogant and privileged rich.”

To put it another way; it always has an element of ‘us versus them’.

Why has populism increased, not only in the West but across the world?

The most common reason given for the rise in populism is economic backlash.  Many feel capitalism and globalisation have failed them and only benefitted the elite. Working-class communities have seen industries that supported their families for generations, such as mining and manufacturing, crumble, leaving many with no hope of improving their lives.

On top of this, much anger is directed towards migrants, politicians, and immigration solicitors who the disenfranchised see as ensuring any of the best jobs, housing opportunities and other benefits are further taken away from them and given to ‘others’.

Another reason given for populism suddenly gaining a strong foot-hold is cultural backlash.  Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, author of Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash, observed that although over the last 40 years we have witnessed a marked growth in progressive thoughts and liberalism, “…reactions to these developments triggered a counterrevolutionary retro backlash, especially among the older generation, white men, and less educated sectors, who sense decline and actively reject the rising tide of progressive values, resent the displacement of familiar traditional norms, and provide a pool of supporters potentially vulnerable to populist appeals. Sectors once culturally predominant in Western Europe may react angrily to the erosion of their privileges and status.”

Why are human rights under threat from populist movements and governments?

human rights Watch recently warned that rise of "populist leaders" in the US and Europe is endangering human rights and encouraging abuse by autocrats.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sphere of human rights and Immigration.

Over the past 12 months we have witnessed statements being made and actions taken by politicians that would have been unthinkable two or three years ago, including:

  • Former British Prime Minister describing desperate refugees trying to reach the safety of Britain as a ‘swarm’
  • Donald Trump describing Mexicans as ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’ on the Presidential campaign
  • Theresa May refusing to guarantee the rights of EU migrants who reside in the UK once Brexit occurs, using them as bargaining chips
  • The ‘Breaking Point’ poster by UKIP, showing a line of mostly non-white migrants and refuges

Most alarming of all is the Government’s confirmation in August 2016 that the human rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on human rights into UK law, is likely to be repealed.  Theresa May has long had a personal vendetta against the human rights Act.  It evolves out of her long tenure as Home Secretary and frustration at what she saw as legislation which prevented her from being able to deport people such as radical cleric Abu Qatada.  In a now-famous speech, she vilified the right to family life contained in the Article 8 of the European Convention on human rights:

“We all know the stories about the human rights Act: the violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home because his daughter, for whom he pays no maintenance, lives here; the robber who cannot be removed because he has a girlfriend; the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.”

What she failed to mention is that the number of deportations prevented by the human rights Act is less than five percent. Appeals mounted under the Act total less than 10% annually.  And the Guardian checked on the ‘pet cat’ assertion and it was found to be completely false.

The best immigration lawyers and academics have all warned the government that repealing the human rights Act and withdrawing from the European Court of human rights could have serious implications for migrants and refuges when it comes to the human rights in Britain.

However, one could argue that for Theresa May and supporters of populist politics, such a result is one to be welcomed rather than discouraged.

OTS Solicitors is one of the most respected immigration law firms in London.  By making an appointment with one of our immigration solicitors, you can be assured of receiving some of the best legal advice available in the UK today.  We can assist you with human rights based appeals or claiming for asylum.

If you wish to discuss any of the points raised in this blog, please phone our London office on 0203 959 9123.




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