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Davos: Global Governance in a Changing World

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Davos, Switzerland -- This year's World Economic Forum meeting in Davos is focusing on the challenges of global governance. Are international institutions capable of addressing today's problems in light of recent shifts in global power? What will these institutions look like when emerging powers such as Brazil, India and South Africa have a seat at the table?

Recent elections to the United Nations Security Council give us a glimpse of the future. For the next year, Brazil, India and South Africa will all sit on the 15-member council, and all three aspire to become permanent members. How will they conduct themselves? Of particular interest to me, will they join efforts to defend human rights? There is reason for both hope and apprehension.

All three are genuine democracies with constitutions that guarantee basic rights. That would suggest sympathy toward others facing deprivation of their rights. Unfortunately, when it comes to their foreign policies, the three governments are often skeptical or even hostile to enforcing human rights. At first blush this is surprising, because even though these governments are sometimes criticized for their human rights records, all three benefited in the past from the attention of the international human rights movement--to fight apartheid in South Africa, military dictatorship in Brazil, and colonialism in India.

When it comes to the Security Council, one reason sometimes cited for these governments' wariness toward enforcing human rights is the unrepresentative nature of the council. Reflecting power relations when the UN was founded after World War II, permanent seats and veto power are held by Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States. Other governments understandably want these privileges reallocated to better reflect the modern order. Until then, they advocate a narrow view of the council's powers in favor of more representative bodies of the UN, such as the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council.

But preventing and stopping mass atrocities has become a core task of the Security Council--widely recognized as essential to fulfill its traditional role of addressing threats to international peace and security. And in any event, Brazil, India and South Africa have not consistently supported human rights enforcement even in the General Assembly and Human Rights Council.

So why are these emerging powers not doing more to defend human rights abroad? The foreign policies of all three governments still sometimes seem informed by a vision of the world that sees human rights as an "imperialist" endeavor, even when the beneficiaries are ordinary people in the global South. That view stems from the Cold War, when many proponents of human rights were Western governments, and their often-selective support called into question their intent. Many members of the non-aligned movement in that era tended to identify with Southern leaders, no matter how repressive, instead of their victims.

Selectivity, and its corollary of exceptionalism, remain problems today, but the global political environment has changed substantially, with human rights organizations proliferating throughout the global South. Yet, Brazil, India and South Africa still often act in their foreign policies as if rights were a strictly Western concern, accepting atrocities elsewhere that they would never tolerate at home.

That tendency is aggravated by the leadership role played within today's non-aligned movement by certain repressive governments such as Algeria, Egypt and Sri Lanka, all which have a strong interest in undermining human rights enforcement. Moreover, solicitation of support by Brazil, India and South Africa for their quest for permanent Security Council seats, even from the abusive governments that make up a large chunk of the votes needed, only reinforces this wariness toward enforcing human rights.

The challenge now is to shed light on how these three governments develop their foreign policies. Domestic audiences in these countries often pay little attention to foreign policy concerns. But when foreign policies have been subjected to public scrutiny, they have tended to move in a more pro-human rights direction, given the difficulty of justifying significant discrepancies between values espoused at home and abroad.

For example, under heightened scrutiny, Brazil went from abstaining on a critical resolution about North Korea to supporting it, South Africa overcame initial reluctance to defend gay rights and softened its opposition to international justice, and India played a more constructive role on Iran. Human Rights Watch is encouraging more such scrutiny in all three countries.

The world is changing rapidly, and emerging powers deserve a seat at the table of institutions of global governance. But with that new global role should come responsibility to global norms, including human rights.