While the path of human rights has always been contested and challenged, with robust opposition from governments, powerful economic actors and other critics, recent years have seen a significant new kind of challenge to the post-war international human rights system from coalitions of illiberal actors. The novelty of the challenge this time lies in the fact that rather than rejecting or opposing human rights, shunning its language and institutions, and seeking to promote other ideologies or programs instead (eg societal order or obedience to God), various coalitions of populist right-wing, religious and authoritarian leaders have been actively appropriating and using the language, concepts and institutions of human rights in order to develop, reshape and transform them in highly illiberal ways. There have been two main groups or strands of actors seeking to transform the existing human rights system, founded on the UDHR and the array of human rights treaties and instruments that followed, into what I describe as an illiberal rights regime. The first is an array of domestic and transnational coalitions of rightwing religious and populist political actors – including within and across democratic or partly democratic states - seeking to reverse specific developments in the human rights system, including particularly those of gender equality, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. The second is the move led by China, in conjunction with other politically authoritarian states and allies, to reshape the human rights system both institutionally and substantively while rejecting external accountability, mobilizing within international human rights bodies, insisting on the sovereign right of states to decide amongst various categories of rights, and prioritizing the right to development and socio-economic rights over civil and political rights.
The lecture will map out these two sets of developments and the extent to which they have sought to reshape the post-war international human rights legal order into an illiberal rights regime. It will consider the implications of these developments for human rights and what counter-strategies are being used or might be used to resist the attempted transformation and to defend the international human rights system.