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July 1, 2020

Human Rights in a Time of Populism & COVID-19

Posted by Dana Walters

Book cover of Human Rights in a Time of Populism
Cambridge University Press, 2020.

A new volume “Human Rights in a Time of Populism” edited by Gerald L. Neuman ’80 brings together reflections from a range of experts on a growing trend in international politics since 2016, the electoral successes of right-wing populists. The Human Rights Program recently spoke with Professor Neuman about the book and how he sees the landscape changing for countries with populist leaders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neuman is the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, and a Co-Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. From 2011 to 2014, he was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The new volume is based on a 2018 HRP conference of the same name.


Human Rights Program: In 2018, you talked about the conference as providing a forum to discuss the rise of populism and its implications for international human rights. At the time, you defined populism as “a kind of politics that employs an exclusionary notion of the people—the ‘real people’—as opposed to disfavored groups that are unworthy, and whose will should not be constrained.” Does this definition still seem right to you in 2020?

Gerald L. Neuman: This “ideational” definition of populism (or exclusionary populism) still provides a useful guide to the current wave of populist threats to human rights. It comes from political science, which also offers other approaches to populism, but I find this definition identifies the salient category today. To me it has the benefit of distinguishing politicians who reject constraints from other politicians sometimes labeled populist who respect human rights, like Elizabeth Warren. However, a chapter in the book, by Douglas Johnson, [lecturer in public policy, Harvard Kennedy School], criticizes my choice and the negative view of populism that it involves. That disagreement illustrates the multifaceted character of the book.

HRP: At the conference, Peter Hall [Knapp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard] spoke of how populist leaders in Western Europe preyed on an economic insecurity and a middle class fear of “being left behind.” How is this addressed in the book? Given the global economic downturn we are facing, are you worried that we may see another increase in populism across the world?

Gerald Neuman speaks into a mic seated at a panelist table with a tent card displaying his name.
(R-L) At the 2018 Human Rights in a Time of Populism conference at Harvard Law School, Gerald L. Neuman, the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, and a co-director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, with Laurence Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law at Duke Law. Credit: Heratch Photography.
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