The instrumentalization of Human Rights in electoral processes as a marketing tool for the dominance of political elites

Sérgio Salazar  (Master's Student in Human Rights at the School of Law of the University of Minho)

States organize themselves by the political, social, and economical domination of their elites. Whether they are democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian, etc. In other words, all individuals are ruled by an elite.[1] For the effects of this article, our focus will be on political elites.

By political elites it is to be understood, individuals that, by their own merit, intellect, economic or social advantages or privilege, achieved or occupy positions of high importance on the political stage. And, due to that, hold a disproportional amount of power over the political direction of the State.[2]  

In this essay we will only be looking at the democratic, liberal, and western States of the European Union. Because, in the majority of the remaining ones, Human Rights are not used or even conceptualized in the same way as in States with a democratic rule of law.

It is only natural that, if it is our intent to implement a democratic system in a State, we reflect on the best, most effective and efficient way of doing so. It seems clear to us that this depends on numerous characteristics of the State in question, of its cultural and historical identity, of its territory and its population. Regardless of all this factors, it is safe to assume that, in all this States, a model of representative democracy is the only viable option. Considering that the high population levels in every State prevent any functional direct democracy system.[3]

It is in this form of representative democracy that we find the main premise that makes the instrumentalization of Human Rights so appealing, the election of representatives. This election, by design, requires that different factions of the political elite fight for the favourable opinion of the masses, in order to keep their status. Because, paraphrasing Joseph Schumpeter, it is through this mechanism that individuals acquire the power to decide.[4] This favourable public opinion can be achieved in different ways, through the media, by public policy, by contact with the non-elites, etc. But they all anchor on the social manipulation of the electorate, using political marketing.

Political marketing, despite there not being a definition that is entirely accepted by the Academy, can be roughly defined as the sale of personalities and, therefore, the art of understanding which ones are more appealing to the electorate. Essentially, the manipulation of the individual with the objective of getting that individual to act a certain way.[5]

So it happens that Human Rights belong to a long list of causes that are appropriated by political marketing specialists to help create these personalities in order to manipulate the non-elites.

This appropriation isn’t new, it has been happening mainly since the last century, in its majority, regarding attempts at increasing soft power levels, by major Cold War era powers. And it continues to this day.[6]

But, globalization, the invention of the internet, social media and other means of communication have allowed today’s population to inform itself about the world picture quicker than ever. This, in its turn, has led to an increase in an overall proximity amongst individuals, that has made possible, or at least more likely, that these individuals support, and feel a close relation to certain causes. Amongst these causes are the ones linked to Human Rights issues.[7] When this fact became obvious, these previously mentioned new means of communication started being utilized by the political elite to broadcast their rhetoric regarding this topic, with the main objective of gaining popularity. Human Rights, do to being a cause of almost universal support by public opinion, in the western world and having a nearly unequalled dogmatic status associated to its defence, became one of the most tantalizing flags for the political elite to wave in an attempt to manipulate the masses.  

The problem with the utilization of this cause as a manipulation tool is that it prevents it from going further. It’s a demagogic tool, meaning that it looks to manipulate the electorate with ulterior motives than the ones that are put forward as motivation.[8] It is used as a campaign slogan, as a way to justify controversial actions in order to minimize opposition judgement (do to the dogma associated), as a way to increase soft power (that is nothing more than the manipulation of foreign populations, just with other objectives that aren’t strictly electoral in nature).

This creates a delicate balance, employed by the elites, where “the fight” for Human Rights is used when it is convenient to a situation and forgotten when it is not. This forgetfulness is justified with the use of “the fight” for Human Rights itself, in some sort of cynical whataboutism, because public opinion is used as a justification of action in every representative democracy.[9]

Hardly ever are Human Rights defended, or even mentioned, when a big level of public outrage about a certain situation leads to public opinion swaying in favour of solutions that break them. Never is the rule of law mentioned to contain these excesses, by pure fear of angering public opinion.[10]

This instrumentalization of Human Rights by the political elite, puts forth one of the greatest challenges to the correct application and defence of these same Human Rights. Because the more “the fight” for Human Rights is appropriated and used as a tool, the more their image is worn out in the eyes of the public, and the more its sincere defence is discredited. The more it becomes nothing, but another slogan used as a weapon in political debates. The more they become permeable to populist rhetoric and antidemocratic agents, that don’t uphold Human Rights.

This presents real dangers to society and to the rule of law, that are already showing their consequences, in areas such as migrations, women’s rights and self-determination, all questions that dominate today’s zeitgeist. All this influences in a negative manner, the application of the legal framework of the European Union. And so, this social influence and degradation of the concept of Human Rights causes damages to the rule of law, because State officers see themselves pressured not to legislate or analyse legislation in an impartial and just manner and are pushed into accepting the whims of the political power and popular judgment.

The main difficulty in resolving this problem is that its resolution by purely legal ways is highly unlikely. As we aren’t dealing with a breach of legislation but its utilization for outside gains.

So, an effort into raising awareness to the current legislation associated to Human Rights, in order to better arm the population with the proper knowledge that allows not to fall into marketing traps that hinder the application of Human Rights, is extremely necessary and urgent. 


[1] Cf. Pareto, Vilfredo Trattato di Sociologia generate. Firenze, G. Barbèra, editore (1916). English translation by Andrew Bongiorno e Arthur Livingston. The Mind and Society. 1.ª ed. Nova Iorque. Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1935, p. 194.

[2] Cf. Cotta, M., Daloz, J. P., Hoffmann-Lange, U., & Pakulski, J. (2017). The Palgrave handbook of political elites. Springer. p. 3.

[3] Urbinati, N. (2004). Condorcet’s democratic theory of representative government. European journal of political theory, 3(1), 53-75. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1474885104038990.

[4] Cf. Schumpeter, J. A. (2010). Capitalism, socialism and democracy. Routledge. p. 290. http://debracollege.dspaces.org/bitstream/123456789/441/1/schumpeter-joseph-a-capitalism-socialismand-democracy.pdf. 

[5] Cf. Scammell, M. (1999). Political marketing: Lessons for political science. Political studies, 47(4), 718-739. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1467-9248.00228.  

[6] Cf. Nye Jr, J. S. (2008). Public diplomacy and soft power. The annals of the American academy of political and social science, 616(1), 94-109. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0002716207311699.

[7] Cf. Meernik, J., Aloisi, R., Sowell, M., & Nichols, A. (2012). The impact of human rights organizations on naming and shaming campaigns. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 56(2), 233-256. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0022002711431417.

[8] Cf. Roberts-Miller, P. (2005). Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 8(3), 459–476. https://doi.org/10.1353/rap.2005.0069. 

[9] Cf. Bourdieu, P. (1980). A opinião pública não existe. Questões de sociologia, 173. p. 3.

[10] Cf. Brown, W. J., Duane, J. J., & Fraser, B. P. (1997). Media coverage and public opinion of the O. J.  Simpson trial: Implications for the criminal justice system. Communication Law and Policy, 2(2), 261– 287. https://doi.org/10.1080/10811689709368625 (Although not directly inserted in the theme of this article, the vicissitudes of the O.J. Simpson case and the role of public opinion in it, show clear evidence of the influence of public opinion in law, as we intend to prove).

Picture credits: mohamed_hassan

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