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Interview with Indrajit Roy: Human rights and the Role of Emerging Markets in the Liberal World Orde

“We talk about Liberalism as emerging from a certain place, and maybe it did, but the western world doesn’t have monopoly over the broader ideas of freedom, justice, and human rights”

We sat down to talk with Dr. Indrajit Roy in the Politics Department at the University of York, who teaches ‘the Rising Powers’ module. He is also a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Research Associate at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford. He studies democratic deepening and societal transitions in the Global South. His specific research interests lie in studying citizenship in the 'emerging markets', the connections between political change and social transformation, and South Asian politics.

1. What is the current state of the implementation of human rights policy within rising powers and what is the power relationship between civil society and the government? For example, in Turkey or Russia?

In broad terms, I think we realise that there is a discursive commitment to human rights in some of the emerging markets and rising powers. Up to a certain point, very recently, Brazil, India and South Africa were very much in favour of universal human rights. There is narrative or discursive support, rather than what is going on with the implementation. This tells you how states like to be seen when it comes to human rights policy.

By contrast, China, Russia and Turkey are increasingly very ambivalent towards human rights. Both the recognition of human rights and the implementation of it. Turkey is a very interesting case because it seeks to join the EU and makes a lot of noise about how it is committed to human rights. Once it is turned away by the EU, and they see there are no choices of joining in the possible future, they don’t care.

So, you see two groups of countries in emerging countries, some of which who are discursively committed to human rights some of which are less so. Increasingly we see that, in terms of the implementation of human rights policy there’s a gradual weakening across the emerging markets, but I suppose we can say that there is a gradual weakening across the world. In terms of the relationship between the civil society and the state, we see skewing in favour of the state. The state doesn’t see civil society as enabling spaces, seeing them rather as anti-state spaces and anti-national spaces.

But I suppose, here, the emerging markets and established powers are learning more from each other. The issues are not unique to emerging markets.

So, to answer your question, the current implementation of human rights in the rising powers and emerging markets is very precarious, very fragile, and it’s becoming more and more fragile. In the last decade there was at least a discursive commitment that we saw towards the protection of human rights, that is coming increasingly under strain.

2. Would you say that this is because the growth in multilateral organisations has petered out since the establishment of the UN?

I think it’s the way the global politics and civil politics have interacted with one another. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, newly emerging countries were very keen to establish certain sets of norms so that they would never be colonised again. So, to think about human rights as an anti-colonial struggle, its something that today’s rising powers played a very important role in establishing.

Then, you also have to think about the internal and domestic struggles within these countries. Certainly, you see this in Brazil and India. Brazil is becoming more of a democracy and India was never authoritarian but certainly you see the one-party system being challenged by other actors. South Africa had a military dictatorship but then a growth of democracy, leading to the end of Apartheid. You see a broadening and deepening of democracy in emerging markets. In fact, in some ways, this goes hand in hand with the economic changes that we see in those countries.

But then you see a kind of elite backlash against broadening of democracy in emerging markets. Disparaging ideas of human rights. The difference is that the elites in emerging powers are much stronger than elites in established powers. Yes, you have Donald Trump, but he cannot do what Bolsonaro is threatening in Brazil, what Modi is going with in India and what Erdogan is doing in Turkey. Trump might want to and he might learn from a lot of these characters, but he can’t get away with it in the same way. Balance of class power might explain why implementation of human rights is as precarious as it is.

3. How about the US pulling out of multilateral organisations, will there be a power vacuum that might appeal to another county like China?

There might not be as much of a vacuum as we fear. For example, you have multilateral organisations such as the African Union, you have the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. You have, perhaps not the western dedication to human rights, but attempts for peace harmony and security. So, you may not have a normative commitment to democracy, but one for the commitment to peace. These other models for peace, gives them a chance of developing sustainable mechanisms. I’m not trying to gloat over US withdrawal, but in a sense, I am. Now you get different parts of the world which have a chance, even though it might be messy and embroiled with conflict. There’s no reason to believe that the withdrawal of the US will lead to power vacuum, but actually might give developing powers a chance to regain normal life, for example Afghanistan.

West Asia had its own civilisation for 1000s of years, it had communities and sophisticated mechanisms, much better then the alternative conflicts that the West brought. The withdrawal of the liberal international order might actually allow for the return of peace for them. Today, in a lecture on South Asia, I was showing Afghanistan in the 1970s, society was peaceful, people could go to schools, women wore skirts while walking down streets of Kabul. Not to say that wearing miniskirts is an indication of development, but the point is that people were living normal lives as human beings. This was before Afghanistan was sought to be brought into the ‘liberal world order’, before the invasion into Afghanistan which had been brought about by US-backed mujahedin. To answer your question, withdrawal of the ‘liberal world order’, or the US so to speak, from multilateral organisations may just be the best thing for emerging powers. There will be a bit of a power vacuum but not so much as to lead to a Hobbesian state of anarchy.

4. Do you think the erosion of Liberalism is part of the process of decolonisation?

In a nutshell, yes. Of course, it is nuanced. It’s part of the decolonisation process because the roots of Liberalism you see in colonialism and Liberalism is restricted to a very elite selection of populations of the colonised countries, and its perhaps a very conservative section as well. So, they are economically liberal but politically conservative. For, instance, in India, most of the ‘liberals’ are those who benefited from colonial regime and patterns of education and tended to be high-castes. With decolonisation and democracy, what are you likely to see? One is that high castes will continue to establish their ‘hegemony’ as it were, using the language of Liberalism, merit, rights, and the language of the right to property, to continue their dominance in society. So, even if the ‘liberal order’ disintegrates, it might still be perpetuated by high-castes to continue their dominance and hegemony within the state.

Here we have to again draw an important distinction between Liberalism and democracy. The two, post-war, have come together, but historically and conceptually, they are two very different things. Liberalism is more about the right to life and liberty, and democracy is much more about the relationship between the governed and the governors, about sovereignty, etc. So, when you have these huge social exclusions, these huge hierarchies and inequalities, and Liberalism is associated with those elites, the processes of democracy have to undermine Liberalism. Oppression, in India, under colonial rule and elites has been under castes and collective discrimination, therefore affirmative action will involve claiming group rights. It’s not about Liberalism, indeed, the liberals condemn affirmative action as undermining merit and the idea of right to individual life and liberty. But these are tools oppressed communities use. Therefore, the disintegration of the ‘liberal order’ will involve the challenging of liberal values in emerging powers.

On the other hand, there are also conservatives, for example Confucians in China, who would also rejoice in undermining of Liberalism. So, in a sense, Liberalism faces threats from two groups, that of conservatists and liberals. These two groups don’t align very naturally with each other. So, if you look at it from a game-theoretical standpoint, Liberalism managed to stay on because those two groups continued to conflict with each other. But I suppose there are internal contradictions that Liberalism suffers from. So, the erosion of the ‘liberal order’ doesn’t come from these challenges but the internal issues. The fact that you have such a narrow basis and not a very strong root in any of these places, that it is tied to fortunes of a tiny portion of people. Furthermore, that most of the elites in great powers do not cling to Liberalism, certainly not in this country or the United States. So, you’re right, the erosion of Liberalism does stem part-in-parcel from decolonisation, but it’s also part of the process of democratization which we cannot ignore.

And that has global resonance, because of how Liberalism emerged in the hands of the very powers that were suppressing anti-colonialism. And I know this might go back 200 years but I think it’s important to recall that history. We often think of France as the home of liberty, equality and fraternity, but at the same time it was engaged in suppressing the Haitian revolution-that is Liberalism! It was Liberalism that suppressed the revolution, not Trump or Macron or Brexit, but Liberalism. It was that foundational moment, when you saw powers such as France and the UK ganging up on Haiti. But that was the threat Liberalism saw itself faced with, so came out with guns blazing. Poor Haiti then needed to pay reparations to France, can you imagine injustice of it? Not France paying reparations for colonial injustice to Haiti, but it’s Haiti paying the reparations. Can you expect Haiti to be committed to liberal values? I mean, ironically, I think the Haitians actually are, and there is a conceptual question. We talk about Liberalism as emerging from a certain place, and maybe it did, but the western world doesn’t have a monopoly over the broader ideas of freedom, justice and human rights. In fact, it was in Haiti that ideas of liberty saw their first flourishing. And then they were appropriated by the French, and then Hegel, and Hegel writes about the master-slave dialectic as if it’s his own idea but perhaps he was appropriating ideas from Haiti. I mean, I don’t know for sure, historical political theorists may know better. But there are publications on Haiti, Hegel and ideas of freedom we think are rooted in Europe, which may not be the case.

But that, of course, weakens my argument that Liberalism is part and parcel of colonial powers. Because that is the way Liberalism emerged. And that’s why I kept talking about Liberalism as a very specific political view, it’s not freedom, democracy or justice, which are all 3 very different things to Liberalism. But if the ‘liberal order’ is going to erode, it’s about time. And it’s sad because we really don’t know what the alternative is. But, as I said, there may be several alternatives, some good, some not so good. We have Erdogan in power, Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping. Hopefully, they will not remain in power forever. But face it, we have them in power but we also have Trump. And we’ve has some very peculiar characters in the North Atlantic world as well. Of course, we’ve had dictators elsewhere in the world during Liberalism who were supported by the United States, at the very moment it was promising freedom. And forget about what the US was doing outside, but what was it doing within? At the very time, it was promoting Liberalism, there was segregation and institutionalised discrimination, all in the name of Liberalism, by the way. Because the very idea of Liberalism is that you treat all human beings as alike but of course only if we consider them human beings.

Now, it is to the great credit of the large number of liberal theorists who have been resilient when faced with the issue of discrimination and Rawls famously talks about the Difference Principle, where he says that inequalities are alright if it means bringing up those who are oppressed to levels of the more privileged. But Rawls wasn’t innovative about this, India had its constitutional guarantees for affirmative action maybe five or seven decades before, because a number of the Indian princely states had thought about affirmative action programmes. They weren’t doing this because of Liberalism, they were doing it because those princes were of the historically oppressed communities and they wanted to undermine the high castes, so there was a level of self-interest there. But we have to acknowledge the messiness of politics, and I believe that global politics is going to become messier, it’s going to be less predictable.

5. Is it likely that the BRIC countries will eventually develop into the ‘Western’ model, where democracy reduces the probability of human rights abuses?

I don’t think anyone’s going to ‘become like the West’, or converge with Liberalism. But that doesn’t mean emerging powers won’t change. If you look at academic approaches to how this question could be answered you have the Modernization theorists, the liberal inspired model where, as the world modernises, everyone becomes images of Western Europe and North America, but that isn’t happening. You see economic growth in China, you do see economic growth in Brazil and India. But they aren’t becoming France or Britain or the United States. Even if they have evolved from the last 50 years or so, they are different to Western states still. China, India and Brazil have changed, and I think that’s where the varieties of capitalism, democracy and modernity come in. There are undoubtedly a few certain characteristics of capitalism that most countries share, perhaps with the exception of Cuba, and that’s not something we can deny. The socialist revolution isn’t around the corner, and I think we need to accept that. So, what we have is a very messy and variated capitalist system, or set of systems. Which is not, again, converging with democracy either. So, I think these distinctions between capitalism and democracy, are phenomena we have to live with.

The emerging powers will not necessarily converge with Liberalism so they may not be thrilled about liberal ideas, liberal economic ideas where the state and the market are separate, for instance. But that does not mean they will actively undermine these institutions. Rather, they may occupy these institutions, and try to change them substantially from within, beyond recognition. I don’t think they’ll do it in a revolutionary way, and they don’t talk of ‘revolution’, but that makes them even more sneaky with occupying these institutions and changing them irrevocably. India and Brazil are already doing that with the WTO by bringing up the idea of preferential treatment of the developing countries, which lies on face of free trade ideas. Another example is India and several South African countries working together to produce cheaper pharmaceuticals than the free trade regime would have it. So, its not because India loves the African countries that it does that. Of course, there are Indian pharma companies that have pushed the government to do this, but language of free trade is not something that they will use. So, they will not do away with the WTO or the UN, but they will change its very nature.

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