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Revitalizing the Struggle for Human Rights

Following the progress made toward recognizing and protecting human rights in the twentieth century, the past two decades have brought the return of authoritarianism, war, and all the rights violations that come with them. For governments, international organizations, and advocates, new realities demand a new narrative.

THE HAGUE –This century has not been kind to human-rights optimists, with 2022 being no exception. Many gains in the recognition and protection of the universal rights recognized in the post-World War II and post-Cold War years have stalled or been eroded. Russia’s criminal behavior in Ukraine is but the most recent example of a broader trend – made even more shocking by Russia’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which exists to uphold the very principles of international law that the Kremlin is now so brazenly violating.

Looking back, the high-water mark for human rights in the last two decades may have been the 2005 UN World Summit, when more than 150 heads of state and government unanimously embraced, as a universal principle, the concept of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P) populations against genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. We have had little to celebrate since then, as many recent surveys demonstrate. In every year since 2006, Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report – which scores every country against multiple indicators drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – has found more countries to be deteriorating, rather than improving, in their overall human-rights performance.

Similarly, The Economist’s most recent Democracy Index, which scores 167 countries on five selected indicators of political and civil rights, shows a steady decline every year since 2015, with more than one-third of the world’s population now living under authoritarian rule and just 6.4% enjoying full democracy. And the World Justice Project’s latest Global Rule of Law Index finds that two-thirds of the countries it surveys have slipped in their “fundamental rights” scores since 2015. Some of the most conspicuous recent declines in overall respect for the rule of law have occurred among its strongest traditional defenders – namely, in 13 of the European and North American countries surveyed.