The origin of the term public diplomacy can be traced back to the era of the Cold War during which ideological competition, psychological warfare, and East-West rivalry, socialism versus capitalism, the Soviet Union and the US vied for global dominance. The strenuous efforts by both political camps to demonstrate to the public in each other’s countries, and elsewhere in the world, the superiority of their cause, showcased the potential that communication and public diplomacy had on influencing public opinion. The Sputnik launching, the first man in space, the landing on the moon are all pertinent examples of projects initiated during the Cold War to demonstrate the West’s and the East’s progressiveness and societal advancement.
Public diplomacy can therefore best be described as the activities undertaken by governments to influence public attitudes, to promote the national interests of a country, and to engage with key international audiences. It may be conceptualized as a modality of diplomacy that practices a form of propaganda through elegant political rhetoric. One would assume that ideological struggles would have ceased with the triumph of political liberalism and capitalism, and with the demise of the Soviet Union and communism. However, with the so-called “War on Terror” this has more than ever brought the term public diplomacy “back on the radar” as a tool to win the “hearts and minds” of people in the pursuit of political control and geopolitical power struggles.
When we look at public diplomacy in the 21st century, we can suggest that sometimes it instrumentalizes human rights and democratic values as weapons against competing states, accusing them of human rights abuses and breaches of democratic principles. Several governments have declared the promotion of human rights as one of their core missions and thus present themselves to the world community as legitimate promoters and protectors of human rights. It has become an integral component in the planning and execution of foreign policy of several countries in their attempts to inform, engage and influence global audiences. The open criticism of a foreign country’s human rights practices can bring the matter to the attention of the media, the public and the international community.
Nonetheless, protection and promotion of human rights are frequently conditioned by geopolitical interests and seldom make an objective assessment of alleged human rights abuses or make constructive proposals on how to redress past injustices. It may, of course, be the perceived strategic interest of a government to remain silent so as not to disrupt political and economic relations between countries. But when strategic interests are not at stake, governments may speak forcefully to expose human rights violations through various public relations techniques to mobilize the public.
To illustrate with one relevant example, the use of metaphors such as “Axis of Evil”, “Democracy vs. Tyranny” and “Freedom vs. Oppression” are attempts to define the political realities as perceived by certain countries. They are featured with moral and ideological considerations but hide certain aspects of the realpolitik motivations embedded in international relations. They give rise to politicization of human rights, selectivity and double standards that remain an obstacle to the universal application of human rights standards worldwide. The hijacking of human rights for economic and geopolitical purposes is also achieved by deflecting attention away from real issues to undermine the reputation and credibility of adversaries.
I would like to stress that public diplomacy, when used uniformly and in good faith, has the potential to advance the realization of human rights. It can document abuses and exploitations, and promote the status of weak, oppressed and marginalized groups. It also gives a voice to victims by acknowledging their sufferings and human rights abuses. On the other hand, I may be saying the obvious when I observe that the politicization of human rights and the selective application of international law norms give rise to skepticism and even cynicism among many audiences. The credibility of the United Nations, and in particular that of the Human Rights Council, depends on their commitment to apply international law, and human rights standards, objectively and not à la carte.
To avoid this perception, we must ensure that human rights abuses are addressed comprehensively and impartially so as to demonstrate that human rights are universal, interrelated and interdependent. The United Nations has the sacred duty to create enabling conditions for human rights, to remove obstacles and to work preventively. Not enough is being done to study the root causes of conflict, which very frequently lie in endemic power imbalances, structural violence, inequality and extreme poverty. It is important that states actively review performance nationally and internationally and seek to improve it through dialogue, exchanges of experience and technical assistance rather than through grandstanding naming and shaming. Decision-makers must therefore be guided by the principle of cooperation and constructive dialogue in facilitating a political atmosphere conducive to peace, mutual understanding and solidarity.