'Hope is not what we need': UN Rapporteur urges governments to fight for human rights

Human rights lawyer Agnès Callamard investigated the murder of Jamal Khashoggi for the UN. Shocking as it was, the horrific killing speaks of our times — it's also the disturbing but fitting departure point for our discussion with her on human rights in the 21st century, and what the international community can do when they're violated.

Human rights lawyer Agnès Callamard​​​​​​​ investigated the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi

Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, investigated the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She calls the brutal murder 'a crime of our time.' (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Human rights lawyer Agnès Callamard calls the killing of Jamal Khashoggi "a crime of our time." 

Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, was responsible for the investigation into Khashoggi's murder. Her report concluded that officials of the state of Saudi Arabia were responsible. She says the journalist's brutal death demonstrates the urgent need to stand up for human rights. 

"It is a crime of our time, first because of targeted killings or violence against individuals whose freedom of opinion, independence of mind is challenging some form of power that is very much a reflection — an increasing reflection — of the days we live in," Callamard told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

"And in my opinion, it is becoming closer to a Cold War era than what we have experienced for the last 20 years."

If Saudi Arabia recognized its responsibility for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi (pictured), Agnes Callamard says it would have demonstrated its 'commitment to be truly part of the global community.' (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

Callamard says she's deeply disappointed in the international community for not confronting the brutality taking place in Saudi Arabia. She argues this lack of action by democratic governments sets a dangerous precedent.

"It's sending a message to torturers, to killers, to abusers, around the world that as long as they do it and violate human rights, no one is really going to stand against them."

Callamard spoke to IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed about human rights in the 21st century, and what the international community can do when they're violated.   

Here is part of their conversation:

When you look at the bigger picture of these kinds of violations, freedom of expression and human rights … how much do you think in the background is this the process of failure of democracy as we know it?

What we are witnessing right now, democracies are undermined in many ways at the moment ... Democracies are increasingly reduced to election which do not reflect necessarily what democracy should be all about. So the pulse of democracy through elections is definitely showing it's not very healthy. 

Democratic political systems are also being challenged whether it's around freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of associations — all of those freedoms have exploded and are stretching the boundaries of what people want in ways that the democracies as we know them do not quite know how to handle. 

The last industrial revolution, the technology revolution, the artificial intelligence revolution is also creating huge challenges to our societies, and to the political systems attached to our democratic societies.

So we are in a bit of a crisis, there is no doubt — and it is a crisis of democracy. 

What do you think happened because we were all promised in the 90s that this was the era of Western liberal democracy, of human rights, of freedom of expression, of democracy in general. What went wrong?

I mean there can be different explanations from a long term historical standpoint. It may be that our societies are looking for a new form of political organization. That democracies are now two and a half centuries old and that the basis upon which we establish those democracies need to be reconfigured.

Second, globalization has carried a great deal of challenges that have not necessarily been well understood by our democratic regimes. One of those challenges is inequality. Yes, within the human rights framework, discrimination is certainly something that has been a big focus. But there is a big difference between discrimination and inequality.

Sorry, I'm just very bored with looking for hope. I just need courage.- Agnes Callamard

Democracies in general and certainly our human rights community, may not have fully understood our deep inequality has taken hold of our societies — and how much it has fed resentment, and anger . And a sense of wanting to change the system has been associated with the rise because inequality has risen even though poverty has diminished.

What are the implications for our understanding of freedom of expression. How has that changed over the 30 years since the supposed end of history?

As a freedom of expression activist and an expert, my own journey is shifting. I was never an absolutist when it came to freedom of expression but I certainly was one person who strongly suggested that speech and information could be the way through which ideals that may be destructive could be best addressed. That ideas that were of a racist, discriminatory, sexist, homophobic nature needed to be debated in an open space and that at the end the good ideals will prevail somehow — that was very naive.

What have you found in practice?

We always have periods where ideals such as Nazism, such as apartheid, deeply ingrained racism in many countries around the world, have been the norm within certain societies — or even globally when it comes to racism for instance. Eventually those ideas have been combated and have seemingly fallen off or have been limited to some fringe part of our society. 

Supporters of the National Socialist Movement, a white nationalist political group, give Nazi salutes while taking part in a swastika burning at an undisclosed location in Georgia, U.S., April 21, 2018. Reuters photographer Go Nakamura: 'I never fathomed capturing this image.' (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

With the information technology revolution, with the multiplicity of ways through which people can express themselves, can receive information, the fact that so-called news is no longer the privilege of organized media — all of those factors have contributed to what some people have described as a cacophony of ideals ... where it may have become very difficult for people to determine what's right, what's wrong, what's correct, what's inaccurate, what's good, what's bad. 

After so much work in the field of human rights, what gives you hope? 

I don't need hope. Sorry, I'm just very bored with looking for hope. I just need courage. And everyone else needs courage. I'm not here to give anyone hope. I just want to let people know that you can be courageous. You can be courageous in the street, in the bus, in a border area, in a flight, you can be courageous in your school, you can be courageous in your writing — you can be courageous in many ways.

So no, hope is not what we need. We need courage. 

** This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed and Philip Coulter. Q & A was edited for clarity and length.


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