By David Griffiths, Director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International
Most leaders know instinctively that they should never let a good crisis go to waste, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. When the public health emergency gives way to the looming economic crisis, leaders who favour an “us versus them” style of politics will fall back into sowing fear and blame to distract from their own failures.
The politicians who have successfully peddled the politics of demonization in recent years have been among the least effective in dealing with the pandemic. President Trump in the US and President Bolsonaro in Brazil have an especially dismal record. Egotistical leadership has been shown to be frail and grossly inadequate to the task. The pandemic, which has no respect for demagoguery and truth-twisting, has shown that isolationism and discrimination cannot, in fact, keep us safe. The “us versus them approach” has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and hampered effective and timely responses to the crisis.
But this moment of reckoning will not be the end for the politics of demonization. Its proponents, those who have benefited so much from stoking fear and division, have found in the pandemic a new platform for their scapegoating narratives. Economic grievances are fertile ground for discrimination and xenophobia.
Coming under intense criticism for their mismanagement of the pandemic, governments in countries like the UK, USA, Brazil, and India will have every incentive to create distractions. People facing economic hardship will justifiably be looking for answers, and leaders such as Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump have proof of concept that carefully articulated blame offers a path to political success. This approach is fuelled by media outlets that profit from peddling outrage, and tech algorithms which drive traffic and revenue by dividing people.
Today’s public square is a messy place, and loud voices with compelling and simple answers – even if divisive and confrontational – can easily prevail.
We must be vigilant, and we must be ready with alternatives. Organizations like Amnesty International need to play a part in building popular demand for real solutions that benefit everyone, instead of allowing shouts of “us versus them” to set the agenda.
Amnesty International has not always spoken powerfully enough into the situations that demonizing leaders exploit. We have therefore decided to adopt four important approaches to change and respond to these challenges.
First, we need to offer a compelling vision of the issues that affect different communities and provide solutions that speak to the needs of everyone in society. At a time when human rights are increasingly seen, in many societies, as elitist or as favouring only minorities rather than as a tool to improve everyone’s lives, we need to focus on building wide and sustained support for human rights as a framework for a healthy society. This means thinking about shifts in public opinion as well as focusing on legal and policy change.
Second, we need to speak to people’s hearts. Human rights are not abstract legal concepts. The things that improve our daily lives – decent jobs, adequate housing, the freedom to choose who we associate with – are only possible if our human rights are respected. The proponents of “us versus them” politics invest in building a visceral and emotional connection with people through sowing division and fear, but we need to ensure our message touches hearts too by promoting empathy and solidarity. We need to be better at reminding people that human rights matter deeply to all of us.
Third, we need to ensure our movement is as broad as the issues we speak about, and as diverse as the societies we seek to influence. Human rights are for everyone, and we need to ensure that our composition as a movement reflects this, intensifying our efforts to reach out to those who are underrepresented.
Fourth, we need to be stronger at a local level, engaging with community organizers in the struggle for justice. That also means strengthening alliances and partnerships, and building bridges of solidarity between communities and across borders.
The politics of demonization is based on chauvinism, negativity, and fear. Sustained assaults on particular groups of people are a failure of political imagination and not signs of strength as their proponents claim.
What we need instead is leadership which addresses the underlying grievances that demonizing leaders exploit. We need leaders who will actually solve problems, by building solidarity and empowering communities.
We need to be ready to show that human rights offer far more real and compelling answers than hollow narratives of blame, division and fear.