In the 1960s and 1970s, authoritarian governments did not hide their nature. They just tried – in vain – to present it in the best possible light.
After the end of the Cold War, in the years 1989-1991, the notions of democracy and of human rights gained great legitimacy. Many celebrated this fact as an irreversible moral and political victory. The celebration proved to be premature. The authoritarian instinct had not died and pretty soon it demonstrated that it had learned the lesson: The image of a uniformed, frowning dictator wearing dark glasses was no longer presentable. Instead, in different regions of the world populist political leaders started to emerge, getting into office through democratic elections. Thus, they could boast a democratic legitimacy of origin. However, they ruled in an authoritarian way. This is, they did not countenance political opposition, they concentrated all State powers in the person of the ruler and they did not respect human rights. They justified their ways by means of a nationalist or on a social justice rhetoric, which was supported by many sectors in their countries.
Given this new picture, many of whom have supported the human rights movement have become, at least at first, confused. They thought that the distinction between the democratic origin of power and the non-democratic exercise thereof, may be dangerous, for some could, on that basis, try and justify coups d’état. Also, the pro-economic and social rights content of the populist rhetoric has some impact beyond those supporting the respective regime.
The human rights movement is reacting to this new challenge, albeit slowly and somewhat lately. But there is still very much to do.
The main task at hand is to clarify that the idea of democracy presupposes the rule of law, as well as the protection of the rights of political minorities. It is necessary for that notion to get to be widely understood as an inseparable part of human rights.