Santiago Cantón: 'We need to mobilise the human rights community again'

Santiago Cantón, secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists. (Geneva Solutions/Michelle Langrand)

The new chief of the International Commission of Jurists warns of the challenges human rights face as democracies across the world falter and calls on human rights groups to rally behind a new purpose.

After spending the last few years in the United States, Santiago Cantón, the Argentinian jurist who recently became the new secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), will call Geneva his home for the next five years.

The discreet organisation of well-respected judges and lawyers, located in the Paquis neighbourhood and now celebrating its 70th anniversary, is almost as old as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Born from the ashes of World War II initially to investigate abuses committed in the Soviet part of post-war Germany, the group has made vital contributions over the decades to the human rights architecture. Most notably, they helped push for the creation of an international criminal court and several UN human rights instruments, including the Convention on Enforced Disappearances, first proposed by its then-president Niall MacDermot.

Cantón, 60, also brings with him some heavy baggage of experience in human rights. He was the executive secretary from 2001 to 2012 of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, one of the arms of the Organization of American States tasked with reviewing rights abuses. Before that, Cantón served as the commission’s first special rapporteur on freedom of expression from 1998 to 2001. More recently, Cantón was part of the UN Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry on abuses committed in the occupied Palestinian territories during the 2018 protests.

The big bang of human rights

As a young student, Cantón saw his country fall into the clutches of a military junta that would rule ruthlessly for ten years. While initially drawn to diplomacy and foreign relations, Cantón knew it wasn’t an option to place his skills at the service of a dictatorship. He opted instead to study international law and human rights.

One of his first experiences, and the one to inspire him the most, was advising former US president Jimmy Carter in his democracy programmes in Latin America, most notably supporting elections in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic in 1990 at a time when the two countries were emerging from bloody conflicts and transitioning into democracies.

He saw the region break away from the chains of military regimes and usher in a new era of democracy and rule of law.

“1948, with the universal declaration of human rights, was the big bang of human rights,” he told Geneva Solutions. “Since then, the architecture of human rights created throughout the world has been extraordinary.”

Democracy in decline

But the tides have turned. “Human rights are in decline and have been since the beginning of the century,” he regretted. In Latin America, too, decades of progress in democracy, human rights and rule of law are now being undermined as countries in the region flirt with authoritarianism. “It is very concerning for a region like Latin America with a strong military tradition,” he regretted.

For Cantón, part of it is due to a lack of leadership. “We don't have the same leaders in the world, and the governments that support human rights today, do not have the leadership they need to have for political reasons.”

He said long gone are the Raúl Alfonsín of Argentina, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Patricio Aylwin of Chile, leaders who stood up for democratic values following their countries’ exit from military rule.

“You do have leadership on the wrong side. And they're winning,” he added. He cited the leaders of El Salvador and Mexico, as well as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the US’s Donald Trump, as examples of how populist leaders have successfully appealed to disillusioned populations.

“Take El Salvador. Here we have someone that has 70 to 80 per cent of popularity. People (feel) that democracy did not deliver. They are tired and want to change everything completely,” he said.

President Nayib Bukele’s recent sweeping crackdown that saw over 60,000 suspected gang members arrested has been praised by many Salvadorians fed up with the violence and insecurity that has gangrened the country for years. And despite the harsh criticism his methods have drawn from human rights campaigners, political figures across the region are flaunting it as a successful model that can be replicated in their own countries.

Cantón cautions against the temptation of wanting to scrap everything. “We cannot just change everything! There are things we need to keep, and human rights is one of those,” he said.

On Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the usual trio singled out for their authoritarian regimes, Cantón prefers to avoid tired narratives. “it's not a question of left and right, it's a question of the strength of the rule of law, and the rule of law is declining,” he observed.

Beyond that, human rights that touch upon issues associated with deeply entrenched cultural values have also been met by a wall of resistance. Cantón hasn’t finished unpacking he has already faced a first crisis. A report published by the ICJ in early March on how to apply human rights standards to criminal law was falsely accused across the internet of condoning sex between adults and minors.

For Cantón, the world is increasingly polarised, and he views social media as a significant contributing factor. “It's hard to find the middle ground, and when things are so polarised, they keep getting pushed harder towards two crazy extremes.”

Mobilising the human rights community

But governments are not the only ones that need to do some soul-searching. Civil society is also struggling to maintain morale, according to Cantón. “It's very frustrating when you take one step forward, and you have to go back like ten steps,” he said.

For the past years, human rights groups have been on the defence, trying to protect hard-won advances. “We need to mobilise the human rights community again, strongly behind something,” he said.

One of the initiatives the ICJ is working on is the creation of a standing independent mechanism to investigate rights violations. UN-backed probe mechanisms are usually set up on a case-by-case basis and have been accused of being selective and politically motivated. The group of lawyers suggests that such a permanent expert body, created through the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly, could help by making it easier to trigger investigations.

“It would be a game changer,” Cantón said.