UN human rights chief warns against populists and demagogues in Europe

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. UN Photo/Pierre Albouy

In a hard-hitting speech, the United Nations human rights chief has strongly warned against the impact that populists and demagogues are having on society, and called for more effort to safeguard human rights law.

“Populists use half-truths and oversimplification – the two scalpels of the arch propagandist, and here the internet and social media are a perfect rail for them, by reducing thought into the smallest packages: sound-bites; tweets. Paint half a picture in the mind of an anxious individual, exposed as they may be to economic hardship and through the media to the horrors of terrorism. Prop this picture up by some half-truth here and there and allow the natural prejudice of people to fill in the rest. Add drama, emphasizing it’s all the fault of a clear-cut group, so the speakers lobbing this verbal artillery, and their followers, can feel somehow blameless,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a speech delivered at a gala of the Peace, Justice and Security Foundation in The Hague yesterday. We hear of accelerating discrimination in workplaces. Children are being shamed and shunned for their ethnic and religious origins – whatever their passports, they are told they are not ‘really’ European, not ‘really’ French, or British, or Hungarian.

“The formula is therefore simple: make people, already nervous, feel terrible, and then emphasize it’s all because of a group, lying within, foreign and menacing,” he added. “Then make your target audience feel good by offering up what is a fantasy to them, but a horrendous injustice to others. Inflame and quench, repeat many times over, until anxiety has been hardened into hatred.”

We hear of accelerating discrimination in workplaces. Children are being shamed and shunned for their ethnic and religious origins – whatever their passports, they are told they are not ‘really’ European, not ‘really’ French, or British, or Hungarian.

In his remarks, the High Commissioner said he was particularly addressing Dutch politician Geert Wilders and others like him. According to media reports, ahead of the Netherlands’ parliamentary elections next year, Mr. Wilders has issued a set of proposals which include banning migrants from Islamic counties and closing mosques, Islamic schools and asylum centres, among other steps.

“Geert Wilders released his grotesque eleven-point manifesto only days ago, and a month ago he spoke along similar lines in Cleveland, in the United States,” the UN official said. “And yet what Mr. Wilders shares in common with Mr. Trump, Mr. Orban, Mr. Zeman, Mr. Hofer, Mr. Fico, Madame Le Pen, Mr. Farage, he also shares with Da’esh [ISIL].

“All seek in varying degrees to recover a past, halcyon and so pure in form, where sunlit fields are settled by peoples united by ethnicity or religion – living peacefully in isolation, pilots of their fate, free of crime, foreign influence and war. A past that most certainly, in reality, did not exist anywhere, ever. Europe’s past, as we all know, was for centuries anything but that. The proposition of recovering a supposedly perfect past is fiction; its merchants are cheats. Clever cheats.”

The High Commissioner noted that while he does not equate the actions of nationalist demagogues with those of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the latter’s mode of communication, use of half-truths and oversimplification, and the propaganda uses tactics similar to those of populists.

“The humiliating racial and religious prejudice fanned by the likes of Mr. Wilders has become in some countries municipal or even national policy,” Mr. Ra’ad Al Hussein said. “We hear of accelerating discrimination in workplaces. Children are being shamed and shunned for their ethnic and religious origins – whatever their passports, they are told they are not ‘really’ European, not ‘really’ French, or British, or Hungarian. Entire communities are being smeared with suspicion of collusion with terrorists.”

The High Commissioner went on to call on the world to pull back from such a trajectory, flagging that while a decade ago Mr. Wilder’s recent comments would have created a world-wide furore, they were now met with little more than a shrug, and, outside the Netherlands, his words were barely noticed.

“Are we going to continue to stand by and watch this banalization of bigotry, until it reaches its logical conclusion?” Mr. Ra’ad Al Hussein asked. “Ultimately, it is the law that will safeguard our societies – human rights law, binding law which is the distillation of human experience, of generations of human suffering, the screams of the victims of past crimes and hate. We must guard this law passionately, and be guided by it.”

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