“I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful”: the future from a human rights perspective

It is raining as usual, which brings on a gloomy feeling as I am walking towards the Raoul Wallenberg Institute to see if there is a brighter future for human rights. But once greeted by Morten Kjaerum, who is sitting in his office at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Lund, I immediately feel slightly better. There is something about this Danish man who has worked in human rights for over thirty-five years that comforts you. Perhaps it’s the long experience; perhaps it’s the feeling of hygge that he brings to the office.

As of the fall semester of 2016, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute has started collaborations with UPF Lund, which has been played out primarily through Wednesday Night Rights, our human rights themed lectures with UN Special Rapporteurs. When I ask Morten why they decided to collaborate with UPF, he replies that the Raoul Wallenberg Institute is constantly trying to be open to the outside world.

“We see UPF as a fantastically interesting partner to collaborate with. It strengthens the relationship between the institute and the students at Lund University, and it’s important for our research and the view we are building at the institute. The most important thing for us is to keep a constant contact with the students, to find out what questions are important at the moment. And it’s fun!”

In working with human rights day in and day out, one must stay optimistic to keep afloat. But is that possible when facing misery? To find out, I sit down and grill the director about what the future entails.

What are the main challenges and opportunities for the work for human rights today?

The main challenges in human rights’ work are that we see some very different flows at the moment. At the governmental level in many countries, we have increasing anti-human rights rhetoric. It comes with populism; it comes with the authoritarian approaches, the illiberal democracies. All these political developments that are shrinking the space for civil society, for media, everything human rights is there to protect, so therefore human rights is also coming under attack. That’s one very important stream that we recognise today. But then at the same time there’s a different flow, namely an increasing recognition at the lower level of societies of the importance of human rights, so we see a human rights implementation in the daily realities, which is unseen before. There’s now a global movement of human rights cities – cities and local communities that ask themselves ‘what are our obligations to actually implement human rights, what does the city of Lund do, what does the city of Gwangju in South Korea do?’

At the same time, when we peel off the populist extrovert communication from many governments, we see when they do legislation, when they’re officiating new laws, they are very conscious about having a human rights scrutiny of new legislation to make sure that it actually complies with the international human rights obligations that country may have signed up to. Again, just one, sort of curious example is the recent coup, or whatever we choose to call it, in Zimbabwe. We witnessed a very strange process there. And there are many reasons for that, but I think that one of the reasons is that the coup makers knew very well that military coups are not really the fashion of today, with democracy and human rights, so they ask themselves ‘how do we make a coup without making a coup?’ And so, at a certain stage when Mugabe refused to step down they started talking about an impeachment procedure. They were trying to drive the process into a legal framework, which again tells me that there is something that is angered, of course it wasn’t democratic, but there’s a new shade, which begs the question: are we almost witnessing a next step in a democratic development in these countries? The same in Kenya after the recent election where they took the issue whether the elections had been free and fair and rightly conducted to the constitutional court where the constitutional court made its ruling. So you have a lot of these counter movements to these populist authoritarian movements. This is is an interesting struggle that takes place at the global level that one needs to keep an eye on.

Another element is the more populist trends that we see. Why is it that we see Brexit and Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, and these populist, and to some extent extremist forces gaining momentum in the diplomatic world? I think first of all, it’s extremely important to listen to the electorate, those who support Trump, those who voted in favour of Brexit and those who support Marine Le Pen, because they have some real worries, and we cannot, as Hillary Clinton, just say ‘they’re deplorables,’ I don’t think either Trump, Brexit, or Le Pen are the answers to the challenges they are reacting to. But what are the challenges that they’re concerned with that lead them to these sort of solutions that come out of the more populist or authoritarian groups? What I see is of course a very complex picture, but I think that globalisation in the sense of a massive global inequality is something we need to address much more. We’ve seen the reaction and how people notice the sort of information we get out of for example the Panama Papers. People have very serious concerns that I already saw growing when I was working for the European Fundamental Rights Agency, where from 2008 and onwards we were travelling across Europe. We saw this massive anger coming up. Angst and anger. First it’s normally angst, and angst can then turn to anger, and that was particularly the economic inequality that was prevalent and evoked this. I mean why is it that we suddenly see a fifty per cent unemployment rate for youngsters, youth unemployment for some of the southern European countries, what is really being done when you at the same time see the one per cent richest basically continue? Global economy is definitely important.

Another element here, which is also linked in some way to globalisation, is the new technology. That we now see converging of so many different technological developments that one thing that we know is that probably almost half of the current labour force will not exist in just a few years down the line. Consider yourself if you were a thirty five year old truck driver, and what you like, what you’re good at and what you’re trained in is to drive your truck, and you’re sitting listening to the radio. And this journalist is talking with great enthusiasm about the driverless cars, and the only real concern the journalist can come up with is that there may be some insurance issues. ‘What if there’s an accident, who really has the responsibility?’ Who ever talks about the millions of truck drivers, taxi drivers and transporters who would be unemployed within a very few span of years? It’s not because I am against driverless cars or new technological answers, not at all, but we need to be much more concerned and talk about then what? I mean, what sort of labour market do we envisage in the future? And that is the sort of concern that is creating angst. How should I take care of myself?

Finally, I would point to a last element, which is climate change. We don’t see repercussions in our part of the world yet, but just go a few steps into southern Europe where you see farmers in hundred thousands who are deeply concerned about the future because of the climate change. The wine production in big parts of France is down by forty per cent this year – forty per cent, that’s a lot. You cannot sell the farms, so you have the farmers themselves, the farm workers, a big group of people who are desperately asking themselves what they are going to do in just a few years. All of this is coming together within just a few years with an enormous speed and there are very few leading figures in our society, be it politicians or other opinion makers, who really address it seriously. To the contrary, we spend an enormous amount of time projecting all this fear into ‘the other’. So we are talking about refugees, the Muslims, ‘the other’. It’s sort of a classic divergence of people’s fear. So instead of addressing what really is of concern we project it into the other. Not to say that, of course receiving 160 000 refugees as Sweden did within a short time, is a concern that should be dealt with, but we should not ignore all the other issues as well.

What does the Raoul Wallenberg Institute do to provide future leaders for a better and brighter future?

We try to address these issues with our particular human rights approach, so we have identified four key areas where we think we can contribute to create a future for everyone. The first one is inclusion. In an era where our societies are being torn apart by us and them dichotomies where we look to the other as the challenge, the problem, and we see singular identities, I only see you as a Muslim or ethnic minority, as a woman or a sexual minority. We have turned that around and look into how we can create a more inclusive society, how we can create a society where people are more open and including. And where is better than in the cities? This is where we work a lot in Sweden with the Swedish municipalities and regions to find out what it actually means to be a human rights city, how city councils can take leadership roles in these issues. And what you can say is that leadership has no meetings at the local level. Getting the local authorities in play on this is something that can benefit human rights. But we also need to engage people. We see an interesting trend right now where there’s a declining trust in the national authorities and national governments, but there’s an increasing trust in Europe and in Sweden on the regional and municipal level. I think there is something to build on there, where local authorities have the possibility to engage people in life in the local community.

Another component that we work with is the economic globalisation and human rights. A big issue in this area is, of course, human rights and corruption. If I should point to one single element that derides human rights the most, and because of that also democratic institutions, then that would be corruption. We have now opened up a new area, namely exploring how human rights can contribute to the fight against corruption.

We are still at an early stage, but no one else has done much on this so we called a meeting in November where we thought it would just be a small round table discussion with 10-15 people but ended up with approximately forty people, three UN-agencies flew in, UNDP from Singapore came in, UNODC from Vienna and the Human Rights commissioner from Geneva, we had MAERSK, the big shipping company, we had Ericsson, Telia, municipalities, anti-corruption authorities from various countries, civil societies et cetera. So we had a fascinating group around the table exploring this particular issue and I think there was a broad agreement afterwards, that this is an important agenda. Now the challenges are partly to do more research on it but also to get it into our education and our dialogues with political leaders and others to create that understanding that there is this intimate link to the access to justice and corruption. I mean, how can you get access to justice if the judge is bribed? There are children who don’t get access to school because the funding that was made available in the state budget’s education system is diverted to people’s own pockets. Then, in general, we are working with the justice machinery to see how we can improve the access to knowledge about the legal system and human rights.

And then finally, people on the move. We contribute to rethinking how we offer protection to people in need of it for one reason or another. With regards to this, we work at the UN level, we are very much engaged in the global compact discussions on the future and policies, but also at an EU level, at the regional level as well as the national level. So we constantly try to combine all the different levels in our work, from the very high international levels to the local level, and always with a research education and a concrete outreach to the institutions that in the end are there to implement the policies. Inclusion is a very important part of our work.

Speaking of inclusion, should you include countries that violate human rights, or sanction them with the risk of isolating them from the community?

It’s a very difficult question to answer in general because you need to look at single cases. My answer would always be to engage as much as possible, as long as there is some possibility to push society forward in terms of protecting human rights. The moment you cut the dialogue, you loose access. But then again, there are situations where there is no willingness to continue dialogue. You should also remember that when you put sanctions on countries, it would normally benefit the authoritarian ruler. One of the few examples where sanctions were really useful is South Africa, because you had a strong democratic opposition inside the country that could keep on explaining why these sanctions are there and why the international community is acting the way it is. But in a closed authoritarian regime, the only voice you hear is the voice of the ruler, who blames all your misery on the international community. That might lead the people to team up behind the ruler against all those nasty international institutions. But again, it depends on the specific situation.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

You do not work in the field of human rights for more than thirty-five years without being at least somewhat optimistic. You have to believe that we are moving forward. Right now, we are in a very difficult situation. But I still believe that there has been so much territory gained in the last twenty-five, thirty years so I believe that this will be a backlash, but that we will be able to move forward again. I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful.

What are the main characteristics of the person Raoul Wallenberg that people should bring with them in trying to shape the future?

His courage, his sets of values, looking at the individual human being as an enormous resource in his or her own right, disregarding religion, ethnicity and age and respecting the dignity of each and every person. That is what I take out of Raoul Wallenberg. The courage to stand up against the flow and a deep respect for each human being – that is what we should keep on pushing.

Julia Bergström

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