There is a pressing need for southern democracies to reclaim the human-rights narrative from the strategic imperatives of traditionally powerful western governments. While the ability of India, Brazil and South Africa to emerge as moral voices from the south is not in doubt, their willingness to take the global centre-stage on human rights is certainly in question. Can their vibrant civil societies help reboot their foreign policies towards constitutional principles and values underpinning struggles for freedom and democracy?

In an Open Democracy debate on the subject of emerging powers and human rights, Meenakshi Ganguly asked if India could be a human-rights leader. Nahla Valji and Dire Tladi pointed out the dilemma of South Africa’s foreign policy being stuck between idealism and the realities of being an emerging power. Camila Asano referred to Brazil’s enhanced status on the international stage and what it means for challenging unequal relationships between the north and the south.

Despite growing excitement in civil-society circles about the potential of emerging democracies to play a more positive role in international affairs, the global human-rights narrative continues to be heavily dominated by the west. This has resulted in many positive gains, including overall support for civil society but also the skewing of human-rights debates through the interplay of double standards. On one hand, a number of authoritarian governments that routinely violate human rights have rightly been subjected by the west to rigorous international scrutiny. On the other hand, egregious violators of human rights that are strategic allies of western powers such as Bahrain, Ethiopia, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been able to receive preferential treatment, avoiding sanctions and serious international censure.

To remedy this imbalance, there is a pressing need for southern democracies to come forward and free the human-rights narrative from the strategic goals of traditionally powerful western governments. India, Brazil and South Africa, each have proud histories of people’s movements overcoming colonialism, military dictatorship and racial oppression against great odds. Their recent gains in the political and economic spheres and success as multi-ethnic and multi-cultural democracies have earned them international respect. They’ve also had visionary leaders in Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to set the course for internationalism and leadership through principled foreign policies.

Under Nehru, India was the leading light of the global south, rendering valuable diplomatic support to freedom movements in Africa and Asia while stressing non-alignment with the western and soviet power blocs. As the first Brazilian president from the worker’s party, Lula’s social programmes to create a more just society were reflected in his stance at international forums calling for greater southern participation in global affairs. Mandela’s personal convictions and sacrifice added gravitas to his calls for the promotion of democracy and human rights in Africa and beyond. Under his presidency, newly democratic South Africa demonstrated its human face by playing a key role in the suspension of Nigeria’s military-backed government from the Commonwealth after it controversially executed Ogoni rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995.

While the ability of India, Brazil and South Africa to emerge as moral voices from the south is not in doubt, their willingness to take the centre-stage on human rights is certainly in question. All three countries have aligned themselves in an alliance of economic convenience called Brics along-with China and Russia with who they share little in ideological world views, constitutional culture and political systems. Moreover, the authoritarian governments of China and Russia have emasculated independent civil society and dissenting voices at home while India, Brazil and South Africa proudly refer to the diversity of their civil societies and political debate as a barometer of the health of their democracies. It is not immediately clear whether the three democracies will be able to positively influence China and Russia on human rights. But there is a real danger that their own natural affinity towards democratic forces may wane with the Brics starting to expand its influence from pure commerce to the governance sphere. This is particularly relevant given China and Russia’s obduracy in shielding Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime for its complicity in the commission of crimes against humanity.

Notably, the attitudes of India, Brazil and South Africa to the people’s uprisings of 2011 — whose reverberations continue to be felt today — have ranged from nuanced to indifferent, severely disappointing civil society around the world. A clear message to the dictators of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and indeed Syria to desist from brutally attacking protestors could have greatly enhanced their reputations as emerging powers, fostering better people-to-people relationships between their countries and the sites of citizens’ struggles. Arguably, swift diplomatic condemnation of the Assad regime in the early days of the conflict by the three emerging southern democracies could have created a groundswell of international opinion against the suppression of fundamental freedoms, paving the way for a negotiated democratic transition in Syria, and preventing the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

It is quite sad to see the foreign policies of India, Brazil and South Africa lapsing into a hard-nosed bureaucratic routine of being dictated more by immediate economic and strategic interests rather than a long-term vision predicated on values derived from their constitutions and struggles for freedom and democracy. Indeed, foreign policy for the three countries should be forged not just through the lens of the private sector and the security establishment but also through the involvement of their diverse civil societies, which can play a key role in ensuring greater public scrutiny of foreign policy through the following strategies.

First, it’s critical for civil society to create broad communities of practice comprising advocacy groups, social movements, individual activists and members of the media to analyse foreign-policy decisions. Too often foreign policies become the preserve of think-tanks and research institutions that evaluate government decisions from a strategic rather than a human-rights lens. India’s Working Group on Human Rights and the South Africa Forum for International Solidarity offer good examples of civil-society engagement in foreign-policy analysis. In Brazil, civil society, academia and state institutions have come together under the umbrella of the Brazilian Committee on Human Rights and Foreign Policy. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done to ensure that the work of these communities percolates beyond capital cities and financial centres to ensure greater public involvement in foreign policy making.

Second, it’s important as a strategy to demand and create alternative civil-society spaces when meetings of the India, Brazil and South Africa Dialogue Forum and Brics summits happen to raise and expose international human-rights concerns to the public. These forums have largely been government-business affairs open to some segments of the research community with a large swathe of civil society being left out in the cold.

Third, India, Brazil and South Africa are in various stages of setting up development partnership agencies. Civil-society groups need to ensure that these don’t become government-only affairs and that they are involved in priority setting for these institutions whose agendas should also include furtherance of human and democratic rights. Experiences of the countries’ democratic development need to be shared through these agencies.

Lastly, there’s a need for greater coordination and information sharing between civil societies in the global south on international affairs. Peer learning and strategising needs to take place beyond the current crop of meetings that are often between bigger and better resourced civil-society groups. They need to reach out to community-based organisations and social movements to influence and engage a critical mass of the public.

From Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and beyond, people’s movements and organised civil society will continue to oppose authoritarian leaders who deny their people democratic freedoms. In the natural course, just as the struggles for justice and human rights in India, Brazil and South Africa were able to triumph over overwhelming odds, so will these movements.

The question is whether the robust civil societies of India, Brazil and South Africa can influence their governments to lead or follow the change that is inevitably coming.

Originally published on Open Democracy.


  • Mandeep Tiwana is the head of policy and research at Civicus, the global civil society alliance. He specialises in legislation affecting the core civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly.


Mandeep Tiwana

Mandeep Tiwana is the head of policy and research at Civicus, the global civil society alliance. He specialises in legislation affecting the core civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

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