Pasquale Annicchino, on attempts to replace the UN human rights system

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

With an interview with Italian academic Pasquale Annicchino, we stay close to The G|O’s primary focus: examining the multiple forms of opposition to what used to be the postwar internationalist consensus—so much a part of what we call ‘International Geneva’.

The debate is not new. But in its contemporary iteration, one of its distinguishing features is that, largely due to the impact of technology on the human social order, it has become truly global, accelerated and highly polarized.

Today, internationalists and nationalists are searching for new allies, and often forming ad hoc and unexpected coalitions to achieve their respective goals. Ideology- and identity-fueled geopolitics are more and more the order of the day.

This is the subtext of my interview with Pasquale Annicchino, Senior Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Foggia in Italy. Ten years ago, commenting on the European Centre for Law and Justice’s (ECLJ) successful contribution in overturning a judgement by the European Court of Human Rights, Annicchino, a widely-respected expert on issues of religious freedom, wrote an academic paper describing what he called “the Holy Alliance between American Conservative Evangelicals, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican to reshape European Identity.” His paper was prescient. I decided to ask him what he made of the controversy surrounding the publication of the ECLJ’s latest report.

Philippe Mottaz: By publishing a report on the Human Rights Council Special Procedures, after previously having dealt mostly with the European Court of Human Rights and other European institutions, is the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) going more global?

Pasquale Annicchino: Not really. I think that to grasp what is happening, one must understand the historical perspective of the conversation. That is what’s missing. People are focusing on small details of the puzzle. This new report is basically along the same lines as the ECLJ’s previous report on the European Court of Human Rights. In both cases, we have often seen emotional reactions to the reports by institutions or academics who feel threatened by the ECLJ. If the ECLJ is falsely writing things about individuals, then the falsehoods must be corrected, and the individuals’ reputation protected. But to be honest, emotional reactions—as always—do not do justice to the debate. Let me be clear: the ECLJ doesn’t have a hidden agenda; it is not involved in a secret plot. It advances a particular understanding of human rights. Many people do not like this, because it represents a conservative understanding of rights. It’s part of a growing global culture war, in the context of which people seem to live in different epistemological realities.

There is no ‘evil plot’ to overturn the international human rights system, it’s all there, openly declared and transparent. The ECLJ says it doesn’t like the human rights system because it has been built around the notion of individual rights. The ECLJ wants something else, and it will fight to obtain it. It mirrors what we have been seeing in the US for many years now, where you have the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) defending the liberal position, and being opposed by the American Centre for Justice and Law (ACLJ)—the ‘sister organization’ of the ECLJ. We are thus witnessing the export to Europe and other countries of the American culture war—especially as it pertains to religious freedom issues.

The Lautsi judgment, which established that the compulsory display of crucifixes in Italian public schools did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights (a case where the ECLJ had an important role), served as a catalyst and accelerator. It led to the creation of new alliances where religious groups of different traditions work together toward common political goals. You can’t understand what is happening right now if you don’t understand the networks involved. You can’t understand what is happening in Poland right now if you don’t understand that.

We now have a global fight between a liberal view of the world and a conservative view of the world. This is all connected to this reconstruction of a conservative view of the world which is in deep conflict with the liberal individualistic understanding of rights on which the multilateral institutions were built. It is a challenge to the international liberal order itself.

Speaking of networks, you place particular importance on the Russian Orthodox Church. Why?

Especially from 2008 onwards, the Russian Orthodox Church has been developing its own understanding of human rights, which is a rereading, a reinterpretation of the human rights convention. It puts a very strong focus on article 29, and on the role of duties instead of rights. It’s a more collectivistic understanding of rights—and is a clear signal of where the world is heading, where there is not a single narrative on rights. The Orthodox Church’s position largely overlaps with the position of the Russian Federation. Many countries have been strongly affected by theological reflections on rights—what are rights, and how do we conceive them—and this has been percolating in legal instruments and in politics. I don’t think people realize how deep these changes are.

Is the West losing the battle on human rights?

The crisis comes from the very heart of the Western world. When you have the United States withdrawing from the Human Rights Council and openly criticizing the multilateral system, how can you expect other countries, outside the Western world, to not criticize the multilateral system and the values it embodies? The West is now very often alone in defending a certain understanding of human rights. But it’s confronted more and more by non-Western countries forming strategic alliances to push their agenda. Look at the Commission for Unalienable Rights created by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It brought the US closer to Russia on human rights than any other European country. That tells you how deep the crisis is. And so what I see happening is a continuous fragmentation of the human rights system between the conservative, the liberal, and the ultra-liberal view. People just focus on their narrow understandings, which in turn creates the polarization and increases the clashes. People are simply unable to talk to each other—which is a repetition, again, of the US internal debate. These are just American culture wars going global. And why are American culture wars going global? Because in the American cultural ecosystem, there is a faith in law, that law can change society. This explains why litigation is becoming central in shaping the law.

Will we see the same debate ‘spilling over’ to some other international organizations?

Yes. China is already investing in a reinterpretation of the international human rights regime and more globally in a transformation of the International multilateral institutions. In Geneva, China is particularly active in all the international organizations active on tech, particularly at the ITU [International Telecommunication Union]. China has brought the conversation farther from the traditional discussion on rights because China understands that technology determines rights in a society that is constantly evolving, digitally. If you can influence the specifications and technical standards, then you are able to know which organizations collects what.

I’d also say that I think that we have lost track of the one of the main issues which has been driving lawyers for ages, which is the distinction between what is public, related to sovereignty, and what is private, especially in the big tech scenario. I mean, what is Huawei, is it an entity of the state, or a private company? But we should apply the same standards to the US tech companies that are now more powerful than some states.