top of page

Respecting all or those like us? Reflections on human rights and populism

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Susanne Zwingel | 4 March 2020

When we say that populism is on the rise, this often implies that universal frameworks such as human rights are under attack. However, I argue that we need to pay attention to the overlap between these two frameworks in order to find better ways to respond to populism. Human rights make the claim of certain entitlements for all. Despite some conceptual and practical problems, this framework provides a basis for transformative action. Populism also often makes rights claims, but these are explicitly exclusive. The question is if and how populist claims could be pushed toward more inclusive ethics.

Human Rights are a widely accepted standard for social justice – the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains many things that most people would like to enjoy. Human Rights are also widely criticized, for example, because the idea and the realization of human rights diverge too much, or because the framework neglects complex forms of structural violence, or because it is too often interpreted as only containing individual, but not collective rights. Despite these shortcomings, human rights are a useful framework for social change. (Some) human rights enjoy legitimacy among states which is remarkable in a world where geopolitical interests come first. This should not be confused with eager commitment to human rights under all circumstances, but states follow them often, and non-state actors create momentum in their favor. Human rights are not a moral high ground, but a way to think of fairer societies combined with principally incomplete, messy, and ongoing practices that are also often misused.

Social change in the spirit of human rights has been imagined as universal and limited. One prominent example is the response of France, after its own revolution, to the claim of enslaved people in the French colony of St. Domingue (today Haiti) to extend the idea of freedom and equality to black slaves. In the end, the French revolutionaries could not imagine them to be part of the human-rights-deserving collective. We are confronted with the same dynamics today: Human Rights practice starts with the formulation of unrecognized interests; these will be contested by interests representing the status quo; once recognition of a situation as human rights abuse is achieved, it can be connected to concrete demands; these will again be resisted; ultimately, there will either be compromise or (temporary) “victory” of either side over these competing interests.

In these terms, human rights practice is engaged in a tension-laden middle ground where diverse grievances and interests are articulated, where mutual recognition can be created, and where decisions are made about the best solutions. These will never fully satisfy everybody, but under conditions or recognition, a collective could work towards addressing grievances, especially the most pressing ones. You will recognize this as the idea of an inclusive democratic public sphere. A crucial idea for such inclusivity and mutual respect is what Arendt called the cultivation of the space “between” us, that is the respect for difference and dissent within the collective to find a collective path together.

How does this reflection on a vision of human rights relate to populism? I am looking for a way to connect with and respond to populist claims; after all, populist claims are often based on a perceived lack of recognition and respect for certain collectives. Populists claims, then, seem to depart from a similar premise as human rights claims do – they invoke privileges or a type of recognition that one does not but should have, that one may be had in the past and then lost; lost in a society where others are perceived to be more worthy. There is some dignity in this narrative, some claim for justice denied. But the concept of self-respect is exclusive and based on a superiority-inferiority mindset. While human rights practice has also been exclusive, its general intention is to fight for more inclusivity.

Is it possible to “transform” populist positions and move them toward a human rights logic? I was fascinated by Emma McCluskey’s ethnographic study (From Righteousness to Far Right, 2019), who basically identifies the exact opposite dynamic. She follows a group of “good” Swedish citizens and traces their changing attitudes to refugees living in their village, in the general context of Sweden becoming more hostile towards refugees. These people think of themselves as welcoming, they have high expectations of themselves (e.g. they cannot have and publicly express anti-immigrant sentiments), and in conjunction, have certain expectations toward the refugees as well (e.g. they should be traumatized, modest, admire Sweden, and at some point, seamlessly integrate into Swedish society). These expectations are based on an implicit moral hierarchy and are easily disappointed when a refugee acts outside of this box. As a result, the Swedes get increasingly uncomfortable and while maintaining outward expression of camaraderie their resentments grow (e.g. regarding perceived hypermasculine refugee masculinities posing a threat to the community). A trigger moment (a refugee elsewhere is killed by the police) leads to an atmosphere in which public anti-refugee statements are perceived as “liberating” and people become more and more comfortable to articulate them. As a result, exclusionary practices such as anti-immigrant voting behavior become normalized.

These micro-processes of “populism in becoming” show exclusive rather than inclusive framing - Swedes saw themselves as full humans with agency, but not the refugees. Would it have been possible to avoid this escalating construction of the undeserving other? With Arendt, I would argue that social spaces need recognition of difference among equals; all positions need to be sufficiently represented (this is an incomplete process, and new voices have to fight their way “in”), and all need to be ready to compromise – get not all that you want, but enough of it. This idea is far from a real scenario but striving toward it is not out of the question. Based on the thoughts laid out here, this goal does not mean to insist on one righteous outcome, but create one together, in respectful and unavoidable disagreement.




Susanne Zwingel is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. Her research interests are women’s human rights and their translation, women’s movements and public gender policies around the world, global governance and gender, and feminist and post-colonial IR theories. She is author of Translating International Women’s Rights: The CEDAW Convention in Context (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), co-editor of Feminist Strategies in International Governance with Elisabeth Prügl and Gülay Caglar (Routledge, 2013) and has published in several peer-reviewed journals, among them International Studies Quarterly and Feminist International Journal of Politics.


bottom of page