Breaking Point: Human Rights in a Multipolar World

On August 31, 2013, President Obama announced that he would ask Congress for permission to strike Syria. U.S. intelligence had just concluded that President Bashar al-Assad’s government had launched a sarin gas attack on its own people, killing more than 1,000. Before Congress had a chance to vote, Russia offered to work with the United States and Syria to destroy the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Most governments saw a diplomatic breakthrough. Syrians, though, saw an inflection point, and the world should have seen one too.

Obama sought to convey resolve, but the flailing Assad regime drew a different conclusion. It decided that no one was coming to protect Syrian civilians. In concert with Russia, the Syrian regime proceeded to annihilate every human right and humanitarian norm, and it has continued to do so. By some estimates, the regime has killed half a million people, forcibly disappeared over 100,000 people, inflicted unspeakable torture on another 500,000, targeted medical facilities nearly 600 times, and used chemical weapons in over 350 substantiated attacks.

Even more distressingly, other authoritarian actors have taken note of Assad’s survival and his impunity. In an increasingly multipolar world, a growing number of leaders are seeking to do what Assad did. They obliterate local unrest while relying on a major power to provide support and protection.

These crimes have been documented exhaustively, yet accountability has been evaded, undermining the power of the 75-year-old Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the corpus of conventions and treaties protecting human rights and developing humanitarian law. But it is not the first time these norms have been in such peril. Just as competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War often superseded the aspirations of a human rights-based order, rising global power competition today threatens a return to ruthless geopolitical tactics and a demotion of human rights norms.

It was the sudden disintegration of an overarching superpower rivalry that allowed democracies, human rights principles, and humanitarian law to experience a brief resurgence in the 1990s. Then, the percentage of electoral democracies versus the number of closed autocracies increased. In 1993, 130 countries signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, just a few years after the United States obfuscated Iraq’s extensive usage of chemical weapons for political purposes. Regional organizations further advanced civilian protection mechanisms. In 2009, the African Union broke ground with the Kampala Convention, the first-ever treaty obliging governments to protect the rights of internally displaced people, forced to flee their homes by armed conflict, violence, human rights violations, and natural disasters.

Syria reversed that trend. The crisis collapsed well-established norms not just in Syria but across liberal democracies. The steady stream of refugees fleeing devastating violence in Syria and elsewhere caused once-welcoming European governments to lift the drawbridge and make deals with increasingly autocratic states to stop refugees and migrants from entering Europe.

Would-be authoritarians and warlords saw a successful playbook for a new multipolar era. Authoritarian actors could once again play great powers off one another and threaten widening instability to garner support. Collaboration between these actors metastasized authoritarianism and violence. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism was twice those that were moving towards democracy. Fueled by external sponsorship, over 50 civil wars are raging across the world, almost 50 percent more civil wars than in 2001. Two billion people—a quarter of the global population—now live in conflict-affected areas.

Renewed global rivalry brings respect for human rights norms to a breaking point. Domestic human rights violations in the Cold War era were often dismissed as collateral damage in an age of great power competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. Today, the rivalry is even messier with China and Russia exploring their own interests, often in opposition to U.S. interests. Other countries are not content with picking sides and can even further fuel civil conflicts and human rights violations to expand power and influence.

And this is a global problem. Despite the “civil” characterization of these conflicts and crackdowns, what is clear in the case of Syria and increasing violence throughout the world, is that these internal matters do not remain internal or even regional. International actors invariably intervene, persecuted populations emigrate, and authoritarian tactics spread.

Nearly all civil conflicts in the world today are internationalized. In Syria, for example, 12 countries are currently involved in the country’s so-called civil war. Some of these countries have intervened directly, exported weapons, or protected war criminals. Even less direct stakeholders like China have played a part. Nearly half of China’s vetoes at the UN Security Council have been in concert with Russia to protect the Syrian regime. This international competition and subsequent gridlock at the Security Council make conflict resolution more difficult, weakens incentives for compromise amongst internal warring parties, and fosters impunity.

Western countries seeking to resolve conflicts are part of the problem. They have often sought to strike elite bargains, sometimes with war criminals, to stop the bloodshed. In so doing, though, they muddy the response to gross human rights violations. With the aforementioned gridlock and internationalization of these conflicts, Western peacemaking efforts often prove futile or even more damaging over the long term. In lieu of a peace settlement, the United States and many other Western countries resort to humanitarian crisis management and securitization. That serves many of their short-term needs, and it helps to stop external migration. Yet, ongoing violence and instability suggest that such efforts from Sudan to Syria amount to applying a Band-aid to an amputee.

In the meantime, authoritarian leaders are collaborating and learning from one another. In Syria, Assad needed saving and Russia saw an opportunity to challenge U.S. hegemony and expand its power and influence abroad. Elsewhere, an expanding network of increasingly authoritarian states provides alternative trading partners to sanctioned actors, military support, and diplomatic protection. Populist regimes support one another more broadly by using assertions of state sovereignty as a dog whistle for human rights abuses and publicly denigrating human rights norms as Western constructs. In effect, China, Russia, and others are questioning the universality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in spite of both countries’ representation on the UDHR drafting committee.

For the United States, there is a strategic case to be made for consistently supporting human rights and accountability even in an era of great power competition. Opportunistic rivals such as Russia gain from supporting regimes that resort to violence to stay in power, exploiting their fragility to expand access to ports, military bases, and natural resources. The protracted conflicts and crises that ensue overstretch and distract democracies from addressing other geopolitical challenges. When the United States fails to uphold human rights during these crises, Chinese and Russian diplomats and media outlets use the opportunity to criticize U.S. hypocrisy, as they have during Israel’s violent escalation in Gaza. In a recent interview with Chinese media, Vladimir Putin called the subjective application of the “rules-based order” a colonial approach.

With thoughtful and inclusive planning, liberal democracies can develop a concerted effort to uphold human rights norms. However, if states fail to see the international protection of human rights as a strategic imperative, these precious norms will likely be overwhelmed by great power competition. When the crises that predictably follow weaken U.S. interests and international peace and security, it may be too late to win back states’ support.

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.