Emerging
powers India, Brazil and South Africa have all campaigned to become
permanent members of the UN Security Council. For one year in 2011,
the world had a chance to see what a Security Council including these
emerging powers would look like, as all three states were on the
council together for the first time. And the record showed? More of
the same. Rather than reshape the Council, these Southern leaders
seemed content to settle for business as usual, and failed to make a
significant mark. They seemed unable or unwilling to harness their
historical experiences to act as leaders in combatting today’s
abusive regimes.

What
will it take to change that dynamic? One might have thought that
post-apartheid South Africa would come out swinging against
oppressive regimes elsewhere, as would Brazil and India given their
experiences with dictatorship and colonialism. Think again. The
foreign policy elite of all three countries is deeply suspicious of
western governments’ double standards and inconsistent approaches
toward abusive governments. Their leaders may still be debating what
they’d like their foreign policy to be, but they are clear that
they want it to be different from the west’s.

This
quest for a new role is fueled by resentment over past domination and
exploitation, which makes setting a course distinct from the west
politically advantageous. Emerging powers have played off this
tension in their public statements, with former Brazilian President
Lula arguing, for example, that Brazil’s foreign policy had
been “characterized by intellectual subordination and oriented
towards the United States and Europe,” and that “even after
gaining independence in 1822, the country continued to be colonized.”
Similarly, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has said that his
country’s foreign policy is founded on “a rejection of
colonialism,” and former President Mbeki railed against a “new
imperialism” following the Libya intervention.

The
reluctance of emerging powers to endorse international condemnation
on human rights is of course also sometimes a product of their own
self-interest. They fear they might be next on the list, be it for
India’s record in Jammu and Kashmir, or Brazil’s respect for the
rights of indigenous peoples in the context of development projects
such as the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant.

This
combination of factors leads the emerging powers to adopt positions
that at times seem at odds with the presumed values or aspirations of
a vigorous democracy. But even if this anti-western perspective is
entrenched for the moment, there is room for these governments to
play a positive human rights role where the west’s support has been
inconsistent or lacking-- in places such as Bahrain, Afghanistan,
Iraq or anywhere else where western interests trump principles. A
case in point is the Brazilian initiative, launched in the wake of
NATO’s Libya intervention, focusing on the responsibilities of
those who undertake military operations (“responsibility while
protecting”). Born out of anger at NATO’s perceived overreaching
in Libya, this concept could spur needed debates about the
transparency and accountability of Security Council-authorized
military action. By setting a new course, neither submissive to
developed countries nor reflexively opposed, the emerging powers
could help break down the “west vs. rest” dynamic that now helps
to shield certain repressive governments.

Emerging
powers could also bring their own experiences as less-developed
countries to critical human rights debates about access to
healthcare, protection of the environment, or the fight against
poverty. Their experience, if properly interpreted, could inform
discussions about the importance of successfully integrating rights
protection into development strategies.

There
are also precedents for the emerging powers playing key positive
roles in advancing human rights standards through thematic work.
South Africa led a historic effort at the UN Human Rights Council in
2011 for the adoption of a resolution on violations based on sexual
orientation and gender identity; Brazil played an important role on
the sexual orientation resolution too, and has been a strong advocate
as well on the right to health. These thematic issues are gateways
for progress on a range of issues, but such approaches should be seen
as complementing, not replacing, action to address abuses by
particular governments.

It
remains to be seen, however, what tools emerging powers will be
willing to employ to confront abusive governments, and their current
mantra of “cooperation, not condemnation” is not sufficient.
While the west would do well to explore less blunt instruments at
times, emerging powers should recognize that cooperation on human
rights requires a willing partner, not merely a government looking
for a rhetorical tool to avoid pressure over its human rights abuses.
The effectiveness of cooperative approaches depends in part on the
prospect that failure to cooperate will have consequences.

Towards
a new emerging powers role

So
what will it take to convince emerging powers to promote human rights
more consistently and helpfully in their foreign policy?

First,
emerging powers should be held more accountable for the shortcomings
of their foreign policy on human rights, particularly by their own
civil society and press. In those countries, public opinion tends to
focus on the large range of domestic human rights issues that
continue to demand attention, and foreign policy tends to be a focus
mostly for elites. But groups that have taken up this challenge, such
as Conectas in Brazil and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights in
Egypt, have seen that calling the government to account for its
position on human rights issues can yield results. One effective tool
has been to generate media attention to human rights policies,
exposing the gap between stated commitments to human rights and the
application of those principles in foreign policy. International
groups like Human Rights Watch can contribute to those efforts, by
helping to provide factual background on distant countries and by
linking national advocacy to global efforts.

Second,
other powerful states in the global south could provide effective
checks on the human rights foreign policy of the emerging powers, a
small club in which only India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, and
sometimes Nigeria and Turkey are usually included. As understandable
as the focus on these most-significant powers is, it obscures the
considerable influence of other regional actors, such as Mexico,
Argentina, Malaysia, Thailand, Egypt or Senegal, for good or ill.
Mexico, itself an emerging arms exporter, pushed for a strong Arms
Trade Treaty and led efforts to adopt the treaty over the objections
of Iran, North Korea and Syria, for example. Moreover, regional
blocs often adopt positions on international issues by consensus,
giving even smaller states an ability to influence that policy. For
example, Mauritius, the Maldives, and Costa Rica have all shown the
ability to punch above their weight by pressing their regional groups
to respond more strongly to human rights violations.

Third,
western powers can themselves make it easier for emerging powers to
take up human rights concerns by addressing glaring inconsistencies
in their own approaches to human rights foreign policy. For example,
the exceptionalism in US foreign policy that shields such allies as
Israel from criticism and accountability for their human rights
abuses provides a ready excuse for states that want to avoid
promoting human rights elsewhere.

Fourth,
engaging with emerging powers on human rights policy may require
breaking with some traditional strategies for addressing human rights
violations. For example, western powers should be willing to take a
back seat or work patiently in coalition with partners from the
global South, so human rights initiatives avoid the stigma of
“western imposition.” In addition, western powers should be
willing to engage more helpfully on economic and social rights, where
western support has been limited, and to recognize the significance
of steps to reduce poverty—a step that some western countries have
eschewed for fear that it will lead to calls for more economic
assistance. Moreover, western human rights advocates should support
regional institutions such as the African Commission on Human and
Peoples’ Rights and give their engagement on key issues more
prominence, recognizing that they can play an important role in
bolstering the legitimacy of human rights initiatives.

What
could the results be of a more principled engagement on human rights
worldwide by the emerging powers? At a minimum, their involvement
would demonstrate that human rights concerns are universal, not just
the product of “western agendas,” putting more pressure on
governments that rely on that excuse to avoid addressing serious
human rights abuses by showing that human rights . If they played
their cards right by confronting with equal vigor abuses in
developing and developed states, their more principled approach could
make the emerging powers a force to be reckoned with, including on
the Security Council.