The Rise of the BRICS: What Does it Mean for Human Rights?

22/11/2011 16:06 GMT | Updated 22/01/2012 10:12 GMT

In the wake of 9/11, any country that was seen as strategic in the struggle to fight the so-called 'war on terror' became an ally.

Unsolved cases of what could be seen as outsourcing torture and enforced disappearances are now haunting the U.S. and some of its allies. The West has steadily eroded some of its moral authority to push for human rights.

But in the last decade, the U.S. and the west has also lost economic and political power. With the financial crisis, the rise of populist political parties and leaders has mainstreamed xenophobic and Islamophobic discourse within its own borders. The growing number of attacks against the Roma and migrant workers in Europe is alarming.

At the same time, collectively encompassing over 25% of the world's land coverage, 40% of the world's population and runaway economic growth, the BRICs are beginning to flex their muscles both individually and collectively, albeit with differing levels of confidence.

The tide of power moving southwards grows stronger still if we include not just the BRICs but also countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico, and South Korea. This rebalancing of power from the G1 or G2 to the G20+ presents both great opportunities and great challenges to the human rights movement.

On the one hand, Brazil, India and South Africa are sources of hope. They all boast relatively vibrant media, robust and diverse civil societies, multi-party democracies, independent (even if at times ineffectual) judiciaries, and statutory bodies for human rights protection (even if weak).

Combined with their growth in economic and diplomatic clout, they could, and should be, well placed to bring their influence to bear by leading human rights change at home and on the global stage. On the other hand, they are still mostly domestically focussed and their own human rights records are often not clean. Like other powerful nations before them, the BRICS countries are pursuing agendas that often put economic gain above human rights.

Brazil, under President Lula, was particularly cosy with Egypt's Mubarak, and developed a close relationship with Iran that has seen it abstain from a UN General Assembly vote criticising Iran's human rights record for three years in a row.

Dilma Rousseff's new administration has sought to distance itself from this strange choice of bedfellows, backing the creation of a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, and publicly committing Brazil to promoting human rights in its foreign policy. But this did not extend to supporting the UN Security Council resolution to condemn human rights abuses in Syria last month.

India has a long way to go in addressing human rights inside the country, both civil and political as well as economic and socio-cultural. India refused to comment on what a UN panel of experts described as "a grave assault on the entire regime of international law" taking place in neighbouring Sri Lanka.

Its voice is still not heard amongst those calling for the accountability which is so badly needed for crimes committed by both sides during the long and terrible conflict. The UN panel called clearly for an independent international inquiry. India's support for that idea is critical - but still missing - despite ample evidence of the Sri Lankan government's unwillingness to allow justice to run its course.

South Africa also has huge domestic human rights challenges and remained remarkably passive with regard to the systematic human rights abuses in neighbouring Zimbabwe. It has too often lined up with the likes of Russia and China to prevent pressure on human rights abusers everywhere, not only Zimbabwe but also Burma and Syria.

China and Russia are, it has to be said, heavier on the challenge than the opportunity. But there are some very slim signs of hope.

China, whose economic power is in a league of its own, wants to be seen as a credible global leader and a country of international respectability. This desire may be influencing its decisions as, earlier this year, it voted in favour of referring Libya to the International Criminal Court.

The situation in Russia is even less hopeful. China and Russia have vetoed the sole Security Council resolution that sought to condemn violence and impunity in Syria, where more than 3,500 have been killed since the protests began. They seem happy to let President Bashar al-Assad get away, literally, with murder. The situation in Syria should clearly be referred to the International Criminal Court. There can be no excuse for not doing so.

Finding meaningful ways of engaging these new powers on the question of human rights is now imperative.