Time for a new kind of debate on Global Rights

Introducing openGlobalRights: a multilingual project aiming to bring people of the south and north together in a discussion about the future of human rights. Translations: Français, Español, العربية


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On any given dimension, the record for human rights is mixed.  Human rights abuses remain high in some parts of the world, despite four decades of concerted efforts by committed, hard working advocates. Critics increasingly levy charges of hypocrisy against both the United States and the United Kingdom, states once thought to be at the vanguard of human rights.  The ambivalence and deeply uneven record of today’s emerging powers - Turkey, India, China, and Brazil for example - present real challenges for a strategy that is premised on international consensus as a basis for securing human rights globally.  Even with the best intentions, the idea that rights violations can be resolved through external initiatives is tempered by the reality that peace, and possibly democracy, are necessary for securing rights compliant behaviour.  

So how does the record for human rights appear when we relocate the conversation away from the west and to the Global South? Over the next twelve months, openGlobalRights will facilitate a global, multilingual conversation among individuals engaged in human rights work worldwide. Globalisation has revealed fractures in universal human rights, but new technologies also facilitate previously impossible conversations. openGlobalRights will connect engaged audiences in the global South, and bring these into debate with practitioners, academics, and activists worldwide, especially on issues relevant to the non-western world.  We invite all our readers to weigh in with comments of their own, in any language. And we invite other readers to respond to those comments, using Google translator, if necessary

Critics say human rights talk is dominated by elites in Europe and America, and that as global civil society expands, many deserving voices are left out. Rather than being a meritocracy of the suffering, critics say, global civil society is in fact an arena where connections, funding, and “insider” know-how remain crucial. Even leading human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch make choices about whose pain to emphasize, and these choices are not always governed by merit or need. When new challengers try to make their voices heard, their styles of speaking, organizing, and claims-making may exclude them from consideration. Global civil society, the critics say, is far less inclusive than the optimists assume.

Our modest effort to broaden the global human rights debate includes translation, as language is a common mechanism of exclusion. In the human rights field, this multilingual approach was pioneered, among others, by the Brazilian academic journal, Sur, one of our inspirations and partners. In this first debate, many of our authors are based at international human rights groups or universities in the west. With time, we hope to recruit more authors from the global South, and to inspire debate and reaction from all corners.

The world’s leading international NGOs recognize the challenges of globalisation, of economic and demographic change, and of emerging powers. For Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, this recognition has prompted the development of new thinking about human rights promotion. Each is pursuing a new and more global strategy, recruiting regional partners, and in Amnesty’s case, shifting some its base operations from London to cities in the global south. Human rights supporters such as the Ford Foundation, our funder and partner, are reaching out to recruit regional NGOs with an international profile.  Will these strategies work? openGlobalRights will debate this prospect fully, transparently, and critically.

We do know this: Although human rights may be a universal value, international efforts to promote them have often proved ineffective. In part, this is because critics have (justly or unjustly) lumped human rights pressure together with other forms of western intervention. To some, it doesn’t matter whether western pressure is run from the headquarters of Human Rights Watch, the European Union, the United Nations, or the US State Department – all are foreign, ill-intentioned, and disruptive.  Tainted by this brush, human rights advocacy has generated backlash and alienated even those local partners who are potentially sympathetic.

Critics also say that international rights promotion can displace local rights based movements by funding international rather than local NGOs.  And, they say, when partnerships are formed between international and domestic NGOs, they force the latter into subordinate positions.  

Many of these problems were overcome, at least partially, in Latin America. There, local human rights organizations emerged earlier and grew faster than in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East, and were less likely to be tainted with the neo-colonialist brush. Did it perhaps help that human rights struggles in Latin America were led by local human rights groups, and had the backing of progressive Catholic sectors? Regional human rights institutions were also comparatively strong, and democratic transitions have been part and parcel of the continent’s rights revolutions. Whatever the reason, Latin America has had a more positive experience with the global human rights movement than other southern regions, and its human rights struggles have garnered more international attention.

In our first discussion - Emerging Powers and Human Rights – our contributors evaluate the stance that newly powerful states take towards human rights. Some speak of BRICS, others of TIMBIs, and still others of IBSA; these and other acronyms abound. All share the notion that world power is increasingly diverse, that non-western states wield more influence, and that this may make a difference for the way in which human rights are advanced - or not - worldwide.  The hypocrisy of the west, and especially its declining influence in the face of emerging power, both raise serious questions about the future of human rights.  

Emerging powers, for their part, may not be natural partners in the global struggle for international rights, as their political identity, and foreign policies, emerged from a different set of historical conditions. China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil all hold tight to sovereignty not only as a protection device, but as a moral value that rivals, or perhaps even trumps, individual human rights. And when these powers do articulate their commitment to human rights, they often give economic and social rights primacy over political rights.  And if hypocrisy is a problem for the United States and Europe, it may be doubly so when rights promotion is pursued in partnership with countries that have deep internal pockets of human rights abuse, inequality, and poverty.

Nowhere was emerging power official hypocrisy more evident recently than in Turkey. As one of our authors writes, Turkey’s Islamist leaders articulate a “neo-Ottoman” approach to foreign policy and human rights, saying they will promote human rights in their own, unique, and culturally appropriate way. After 9/11, rights proponents often argued that the greatest barrier they faced was the hypocrisy of the United States.  When emerging powers behave similarly, is the gap between rhetoric and reality more or less destructive?  

Some emerging powers are deeply sceptical about the advisability of global human rights promotion. What do their publics think? Historically, the western human rights movement has been global in its ambitions. Human rights movements in Latin America and Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 80s, by contrast, were (perhaps necessarily) intent on promoting human rights at home.  Will there be a constituency outside of Europe and North America for human rights promotion abroad? Is it conceivable that the rising middle classes, or social justice activists, in Brazil, India, and China will support, fund, and demand that their governments engage in human rights promotion in other countries and world regions?

One of the legacies of western imperialism is the sense that western countries, NGOs, and publics have the right – nay, the obligation! – to promote human rights worldwide. It seems utterly normal to Americans and Europeans that a New York based group, funded by American middle and upper classes, is preoccupied by abuses across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Would it seem similarly “natural” if a Brazilian, Chinese, or Indian group, perhaps supported by new oil or manufacturing wealth, investigated abuses worldwide, including in the US?  And if not, what does this say about how some have normalized global intervention (for good and for bad) by westerners, but still regard intervention by Latin Americans in the US and Asia, or by Africans in Europe and the Middle East, as odd, uncalled for, or bizarre?

In September, we will begin a second debate that looks at global funding patterns for human rights.  To date, much of the money for local rights work has come either from western private foundations, like the Ford Foundation or the Open Society Foundation, or from official development sources, such as USAID or the UNDP. What effects does this institutional and geographic pattern have? Will funding for human rights work diversify, and if it does, what will happen?  Our intuition is that the autonomy, legitimacy and diversity of the global human rights movement hinges, at least in part, on the movement’s ability to diversify its funding sources.

The third openGlobalRights theme will examine prospects for an accommodation between religion, faith-based organizations, and human rights. Civil society is marked by contestation between groups that ground their values in alternative discourses to human rights, and religious faith is perhaps the most salient alternative.  Working with local brokers to translate human rights norms so that they resonate domestically may be harder than it appears.  Religious conservatism is on the rise as is religion as a force more generally.   Whether this is compatible with human rights, especially in the challenging areas of gender and family, and how religious constituencies position themselves with respect to human rights, if at all, will be a central point of our debate.  How much of a barrier do religious beliefs and actors really present for human rights?  How does the impact of faith-based communities, organizations and traditions on human rights vary across the globe? Can human rights activities and ideas be tailored so that they are more compatible with different religious traditions, and if so, at what cost? Can faith-based NGOs also promote human rights, and if so, how?

Our fourth theme asks whether international law blocks efforts to make human rights global.  Is the contemporary international toolkit of norms, treaties and laws too restrictive?  Does it facilitate or impede efforts to ensure the political, economic, and social rights of people in the global south?  The International Criminal Court has a norm of complementarity, meaning that if states are willing and able, they can pursue trials at home.  Has this generated more accountability, or created an unhelpful stricture?  When international NGOs mobilize for human rights and refer to these international treaties, does this undermine, or does it enhance, the legitimacy of local NGOs vis-à-vis national publics and governments?  Is there a problem in conceiving of human rights as law, rather than as a form of social, political and ethical resistance?

At the end of these twelve months of debate, we’ll take a step back and evaluate whether openGlobalRights was useful, and should continue. Hopefully, the discussions nurtured over twelve months will inspire, frustrate, and engage. If so, the work should continue.

 

About the authors

James Ron is based in Minnesota where he holds the Stassen Chair of International Affairs at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School for Public Affairs and its Department of Political Science. He is also an affiliated professor at CIDE, the Mexican Center for Teaching and Research. In the past, he has worked as a journalist and for Human Rights Watch, the ICRC and Care. He is the editor of openGlobalRights on openDemocracy.

Leslie Vinjamuri is Co-director of the Centre for the International Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice and a Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  She is the co-editor of openGlobalRights on openDemocracy.

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