Obama, Cameron and the Search for a New Model of Global Engagement

It has been a fascinating two weeks both in my own professional dealings and the global events to which they are related.

Last week found me in Oslo for the culmination of a 16-month project on teaching methods for human rights research to a cohort of Chinese academics. The project’s main output is a new book entitled Human Rights in Our Time: Multidisciplinary Perspectives.

Beyond this tangible output, the project used research methods as an ‘entry point’ into advancing human rights in China. The topics were self-selected and then our team worked on methods, research design, and other support to bring 14 projects to fruition. I have been impressed with the dedication of the scholars, the donors that made it all happen, and my coleagues Professor Bill Simmons (Arizona State University) and Professor Rhona Smith (University of Northumbria).

This week saw me in Turku Finland for an intensive course on human rights and development organised by the Institute for Human Rights at Abo Akademi. The group was highly diverse with participants from Kenya, Madagascar, South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, Iceland, Croatia, Russia, Portugal, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and more.

Our discussions focussed on the value added of human rights-based approaches to development and the ways with which to assess the impact of human rights work in the field. For me it was exciting to see so many people for whom none of this work would have been possible even 10 years ago given the situations in their countries.

Transitions to democracy and the embracing of human rights since the end of the Cold War has simply been amazing, and to see the new generations of scholars and practitioners that I worked with this week were truly inspiring.

So as these events serve as a personal backdrop, it was interesting to see Obama on his Asian tour and Cameron on his trip to China, while the Bush memoirs Decision Points hit the market. Obama called for a collaborative approach to combat extremism and Cameron argued that China needs to engage in political liberalisation alongside overseeing its econonomic ‘miracle’, while Bush (like Blair) has no regrets over the war in Iraq and then claimed that waterboarding saved lives!

What a remarkable contrast of contexts! I hope that Obama and Cameron can exercise leadership and constraint in global affairs after the rise and fall of the ‘Washington Consensus’. There is a Seoul Consensus emerging  for the G20 meeting that is much more in line with the kinds of discussions we had this week in Turku, and the ‘we are not yet ready for human rights’ argument we often here from authoritarian developmental states simply no longer carries any weight.

The new model for economic and political development sees the two as highly inter-related, where institutions of democratic governance matter as much as (and for) the steady advance in per capita GDP. Involving people on the ground as the subjects of development and not just the objects is imperative as the limits to the extreme free market logic have clearly been demonstrated by the global financial crisis.

Nuanced, holistic, and more localised and participatory approaches to managing natural resources, drivers of conflict, and raising rights awareness both for those who claim rights and those who have olbligations to respect, protect and fullfil them are paramount in the face of continued threats to security and our rapidly changing global landscape.

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