BRICS: the burgeoning of an international repressive alliance?
The BRICS group accepted six new members at its recent summit, its first expansion since 2010. The bulk of newcomers are deeply repressive states with appalling human rights records – much like the group’s dominant powers, China and Russia. The alliance says it wants to reform and rebalance global governance, but it hardly seems set to democratise it. The exclusion of civil society is a major problem with current structures, and the rise of an expanded BRICS will only make it worse. Authoritarian leaders, having consistently undermined the United Nations, are seeking to further weaken institutions that might hold them to account for rights violations in favour of ones that won’t.
The BRICS alliance – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – just got bigger. At its latest annual summit of government leaders in South Africa, six new member states were admitted, starting on 1 January 2024: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The expanded bloc will account for some 46 per cent of the world’s population.
When BRICS began in 2009 – then as BRIC, with South Africa joining a year later – it was as an association of emerging economic superpowers. South Africa’s accession somewhat stretched the point, since its economy is far smaller than the others, but the rationale for its inclusion was that it was one of Africa’s major economies.
At the latest summit, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said the group had agreed criteria and principles for expansion, but these haven’t been made public. They can’t be consistent with the alliance’s original stated intent, since at least half of the new members are far from being emerging economic superpowers: the World Bank classes Ethiopia as a low-income country, Egypt’s debt hit an all-time high this year and Argentina has one of the world’s highest inflation rates, recently logged at a staggering 113 per cent.
The criteria would therefore seem to be geopolitical – and they clearly don’t include respect for human rights.
China and Russia both have appalling human rights records. Last year a United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council report on human rights abuses against the Muslim-majority population in China’s Xinjiang region concluded that there was evidence of possible crimes under international law, particularly crimes against humanity.
Meanwhile Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin is currently the subject of an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant on war crime charges over the forced deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia. Putin didn’t travel to the summit, sparing its host the embarrassment, as an ICC member, of failing to meet its obligation to arrest him.
Both China and Russia have recently engaged in stifling civic space crackdowns: China to ensure that a third term was smoothly granted to totalitarian leader Xi Jinping and Russia to clamp down on dissent against the disastrous war on Ukraine.
The situation has also steadily deteriorated in India under the populist leadership of Narendra Modi, while in South Africa current concerns include growing lethal violence against land rights activists and whistleblowers. Among the five existing BRICS members, only Brazil has recently seen a return to progressive, human rights-oriented policies – but while these have had a positive impact domestically, they haven’t made a difference to Brazil’s choice of international partners and allies.
Four out of six new BRICS members – Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – are outright authoritarian states in which human rights are systematically repressed. Egypt has tens of thousands of political prisoners. Iran’s theocratic government has brutally repressed the protest movement that rose up in response to the killing of Mahsa Amini by the morality police last year. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are both working hard to airbrush their image, but neither recognises the legitimacy of civil society or ensures the minimal conditions for it to operate. Saudi Arabia executed 196 people last year – many of them for defending religious minority rights and resisting destructive economic development projects – while in the UAE over 50 political prisoners currently languish in jail despite having completed their sentences.
The situation isn’t much better in Ethiopia, where numerous human rights violations were committed in the two-year war between the federal government and rebel forces in the Tigray region. The abuses continue today, with precious little hope of justice.
Altogether, the CIVICUS Monitor rates civic space as closed in six of the BRICS 11, and only Argentina is classed as not having serious civic freedom restrictions.
A changing world order
Proponents of expansion have hailed it as a bold move to wrest control away from multilateral institutions dominated by global north states. An expanded BRICS is portrayed as a key step towards a multipolar world, ending the USA’s economic and political pre-eminence and giving global south states a fairer say – an understandably persuasive narrative in global south countries.
A rebalancing of power implies a readjustment of current global governance arrangements. In their final statement, BRICS leaders emphasised their commitment to ‘enhancing and improving global governance by promoting a more agile, effective, efficient, representative, democratic and accountable international and multilateral system’.
It’s certainly the case that increasingly, global economic decision-making power has rested disproportionately in the hands of the G20 – an association of 19 of the world’s largest economies plus the European Union – and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – a club of 38 mostly high-income economies that holds all the cards when it comes to international tax rules.
All the original BRICS countries, plus some of the newcomers, are part of the G20: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa are members, and India is using its hosting of the G20 summit this September as an occasion to stoke national pride. BRICS countries aren’t part of the OECD, although Brazil, China, India and South Africa are among those designated as key partners, able to take part in OECD discussions. Russia had been in accession talks until the OECD stopped the process in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
Rather than seek to reform and expand these institutions some of them are part of, the BRICS countries are trying to develop an alternate source of power.
Global governance reform is certainly needed, including of the UN, long accused of often being ineffective in dealing with the major problems of the day. The case for reform is even stronger with the key global financial institutions – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank – long criticised for the loan conditions they impose and their bias towards global north interests. This is a key driver of interest in the BRICS New Development Bank, established in 2014.
They’re creatures of the post-Second World War settlement and, particularly with the IMF and World Bank, reflect and reproduce the power imbalances of those times. For example, all World Bank leaders have come from the USA, and all IMF heads from Europe, an increasingly indefensible practice.
An undemocratic system
But while BRICS helps redress that problem by tilting the balance of international governance towards the global south, it only deepens another problem: that of the undemocratic nature of the global governance system.
Global governance institutions offer minimal opportunities for citizen and civil society participation. Civil society is usually at the back of the queue, behind the self-interested manoeuvres of states and the private sector. And a stronger BRICS can only make this worse. Most of its leaders lack democratic legitimacy and are unaccountable to their populations. They’re not going to let democratic participation take root at the international level when they don’t allow it at home.
Using whatever space it can find, civil society has made numerous positive contributions towards a global governance system based on shared human rights standards. It’s been the driving force behind key international treaties such as the Arms Trade Treaty and Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as well as the Rome Statute that established the ICC and the inclusive and expansive Sustainable Development Goals.
Civil society is a key source of proposals to make the UN more open and democratic, and therefore more effective in delivering on its founding charter. It has, for example, put forward credible proposals on Security Council reform. The BRICS leaders have also called for enhanced global south participation in the Security Council, but the dominant BRICS powers don’t seem sincere here. By abusing their veto power, China and Russia have consistently blocked Security Council action. A multipolar world would surely be one where more global south states have a full Security Council presence, but where no state has the power to stop action on which there’s otherwise broad consensus.
China and Russia both have a track record of working to undermine the UN and the status of human rights as one of its fundamental pillars. Russia has used Security Council sessions to spread blatant disinformation about its war on Ukraine. China pulled countless diplomatic levers to delay the UN Human Rights Council’s report on its repression in Xinjiang and then successfully lobbied for there to be no follow-up.
They’re pushing to rework the international order – but not in the interest of the billions of people denied fundamental rights. They’re trying to create an alternate body with zero civil society access and no transparency, where human rights violations won’t get called out and where deals can be struck by leaders largely insulated from domestic accountability.
Papering over the cracks
Expansion is a victory for China, widely acknowledged as the driver of the idea. Brazil, India and South Africa appeared to want a more cautious approach. The move seems at odds with the non-aligned foreign policy promoted by Brazil’s President Lula and the strategy India’s Modi has applied of maintaining good relations with the USA while competing for supremacy with China. It ultimately must, however, have suited South Africa, in a club where it’s always been the smallest member, to be associated as summit host with an audacious diplomatic coup.
As well as China, the expansion will be good news for Russia, buffering it against attempts led by western states to isolate it diplomatically following its invasion of Ukraine. BRICS has come in handy for Putin before: Russia pushed for the development of an alternative international payments system when sanctions were imposed following its 2014 annexation of Crimea, and none of the current members have applied sanctions in response to the war.
For the new members the motivations would seem a mix of economic and political. Their leaders are keen for privileged access to China’s infrastructure support and the New Development Bank. On the political side, Iran is as desperate to challenge its international isolation over its nuclear ambitions as Russia is over its war, while for states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it’s another opportunity to project themselves as forward-thinking legitimate international players, combined with tactics such as sportswashing and hosting big international events like the COP28 climate summit. Saudi Arabia is also keen to promote its China-brokered rapprochement with Iran, neatly signalled by them both joining BRICS at the same time. In short, some strong motivations that don’t have anything to do with reforming global governance can be discerned.
The expansion isn’t over yet. More than 60 countries attended the latest summit and as many as 40 are said to have expressed an interest in joining. More are set to be allowed in at future summits –increasingly begging the question of what the common ground is.
The summit’s statement was packed with references to the importance of human rights, peace and international law – but the track records of most of its members renders these warm words palpably insincere. Covering such a large part of the world’s population should bring some responsibility to be accountable. There’s a growing duty for any member governments that are taking a more open, consultative approach to civil society – such as Brazil – to try to bring those practices into the BRICS fold.
As BRICS becomes more prominent, it should face more questioning about what it stands for and what its vision of the world is. Is it to be more than a somewhat incoherent group united by self-interest and, in the main, repression? Perhaps some answers will come at its next summit in 2024 – although it’s hardly an encouraging sign that it will be hosted by Russia.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The BRICS group should be transparent about its membership criteria and expansion strategy.
BRICS should commit to opening up genuinely consultative spaces with a diverse range of civil society.
The United Nations should take the lead in modelling exemplary levels of transparency and openness to civil society, setting a global standard that all other international institutions should be encouraged to emulate.
Cover photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images