Backlash: The unintended consequences of western human rights intervention

The collision of well-intentioned western activists and imperilled activists in the Global South illustrates the hazards of using global “naming and shaming” campaigns to apply pressure to developing nations with the hope of improving human rights practices.

Rochelle Terman
10 December 2013

In 2002, a woman by the name of Amina Lawal was sentenced to be stoned to death in Katsina state in Northern Nigeria. The local Nigerian women’s group BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights filed an appeal and launched a domestic campaign against the ruling while reaching out to international networks for specific requests. After some high-profile Western women’s rights groups raised the stoning issue internationally, a wave of support for Amina was orchestrated by various groups across the globe, including a flurry of petitions and letter writing campaigns, many of which presented inaccurate information about the case. Some protest letters represented negative stereotypes of Muslims, inflaming anti-Muslim sentiments that were already on the rise following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Rather than guiding appropriate action, these negative and inaccurate portrayals about the plight of women, Islam, and Nigerian culture damaged the credibility of local activists and encouraged the threatening, hostile, and violent behaviour of vigilantes. Local Nigerian activists were accused of working with foreign governments and groups to embarrass the country of Nigeria, and some officials became even more committed towards carrying out Amina’s death sentence after receiving various protest letters with Western postage. Although Amina Lawal was eventually released,  the local women’s rights activists fighting on the frontlines in the battle to keep her alive were faced with ongoing harassment and repression by State and non-State forces, who continued to accuse them of being Western pawns or puppets, even spies working actively to destroy Islam from within. 

This is not how transnational human rights activism is supposed to go. At least not according to international relations scholars who have been theorizing on the patterns, conditions, and results of human rights activism for the last two decades. Looking at this literature,  one would conclude that international intervention – particularly in the form of Western-orchestrated 'naming and shaming' campaigns – is always a good thing for local human rights activists. Local actors are supposed to appeal to foreign groups to put pressure on states from outside. But in cases like Amina Lawal’s, where activists were engaging in the precarious project to transform so-called traditional, religious or cultural practices, international ties were a liability. At best, such intervention is an irrelevant distraction. At worse, it can unleash a backlash, putting local activists at serious risk.

Boomerang or backlash?

For decades, activists working in the Global South have been keenly aware of the risks in bringing Western audiences into to their local struggles. And yet the “backlash” phenomenon hasn’t gotten much attention from international relations scholars. That’s because the dominant paradigm in international human rights research up to now has been the “boomerang” theory of human rights influence. According to this theory, when local human rights activists are blocked from influencing their own State they will seek out international allies by “throwing” informational boomerangs into the transnational sphere. Meanwhile, transnational activists – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch – accelerate this process through repackaging, dissemination and targeted delivery to key journalist and opinion leaders in the West. 

Eventually, these forces may cumulatively push Western governments and international governmental organizations (e.g. the United Nations) to “purchase” the human rights cause from local challengers and “pitch” the boomerang back to the originating country through international shame or other leverage politics (e.g. diplomatic pressure, official scrutiny, aid conditionality, sanctions). The human rights abusing State – now being shamed on a global level – will change its ways, according to the theory, in order to avoid being further stigmatized and attacked on the international stage. 

The boomerang theory has held steady in international relations circles even though the empirical evidence has been mixed. In the last few years a plethora of statistical studies have been released on human rights activism, and we still don’t know whether global naming and shaming campaigns actually work to improve local human rights conditions. And yet scholars of international human rights still assume that global attention to a local human rights cause is always positive, always welcome. At the very least, global attention can’t hurt. 

But local human rights organizations are being hurt around the world. In fact, local activists are currently being threatened by a global backlash, particularly in the form of states promulgating tough new laws aimed at regulating or altogether eliminating the political influence of NGOs within their borders. According to a recent study, nearly half of the world’s states have passed more restrictive NGO laws since 1955, and most of those appeared after the Cold War. There is also evidence to suggest that this global crackdown is intensifying, driven in part by a renewed security discourse legitimized by the War on Terror.   

Not only are local human rights organizations hurting, but there is also good reason to suspect that they are hurting because of Western human rights intervention, not in spite of it. Repressive governments have come to keenly appreciate the symbolic and political threat of NGO “boomerang politics”, and many are trying to disrupt those links as best they can by blocking funding or confiscating records.  In fact, the boomerang pattern might have worked too well, as governments grow increasingly fearful of foreign influence in the form of rights-based advocacy. As some scholars note, the governmental offensive is inadvertently supported by the dependence of many Southern NGOs on Northern funding, which disconnects them from local constituencies and allows opponents to portray them as foreign agents. In this later case, the boomerang pattern of transnational activism – in which local actors appeal to foreign groups to put pressure on states from outside – appears in distinct reversal: the State and nationalist groups gesture towards transnational developments and discourses – particularly around the “War on Terror” and the threat of neo-imperialism – in order to justify a rejection of the human rights norm. This is the global human rights backlash.

Greedy, politically motivated and western: delegitimising human rights activists

How does the backlash manifest itself? In previous decades, a repressive State might defend itself against allegations of human rights abuse by rejecting the “human rights” norm altogether. These days, however, the human rights norm has become so engrained in global moral consciousness that, politically speaking, it is almost impossible to denounce it directly. Instead, repressive governments will often uphold the abstract “human rights” ideal and instead focus their target on the local human rights activists who are primarily responsible for holding states accountable to that ideal.  

This renunciation can take a variety of forms. Sometime activists are accused of being motivated not by altruism but by their own self-interest, such as when the Iranian government accused Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and reformist, of tax evasion and fraud.

Other times, activists are accused of being “political”, or taking sides in an ongoing civil conflict. In 2006, the Nepalese government publicly accused the refugee-rights organization Voice for Change, of using their work as a cover for the political activities of Bhutanese opposition leader Tek Nath Rizal. As a result of the government’s pronouncement, leaders and members of the organization were threatened with police arrest. 

Most often, however, women’s human rights defenders are simply denounced as “Western” – foreign, culturally inauthentic, imperialist. A lesbian-rights activist in Jakarta told me that her organisation is under a constant barrage of threats from both state and non-state religious groups, some of whom claim that she and her fellow activists are pawns of a “European agenda meant to bring homosexuality and moral decadence to Indonesia.” 

Still others are accused of betraying national pride and integrity by “airing our dirty laundry” and embarrassing the nation, culture, or religion in the eyes of the world. In 2002, rape-survivor and human rights advocate Mukhtar Mai was banned from international travel after receiving an invitation to the United States to speak about her experiences. The President of Pakistan claimed he placed a travel ban on Mai in order to “protect Pakistan’s image abroad.” 

These rejections of human rights demands almost always contain a nationalist flavour. States and conservative groups deny that a “real” or systemic human rights violation has taken place, arguing instead that human rights defenders are lying or exaggerating in order to further an anti-nationalist agenda. Anti-human-rights groups speak about this form of cultural imperialism using the same lexicon as foreign military intervention or economic takeover in order to rally the public in their favour. This might explain why so many human rights defenders are arrested or oppressed in the name of protecting “national security” or “public order.”  Now targeted as a national threat, activists are unable to do their work, and unable to defend human rights.

Helping or hurting: How western intervention leads to a backlash 

Not all Western intervention will cause a backlash to local human rights defenders. Indeed, many human rights defenders purposively seek out the attention of Western-based media outlets, advocacy organizations, and politicians, and oftentimes this solidarity engenders profoundly positive change. So when does Western attention help a local human rights cause, and when does it hurt? How, exactly does Western attention lead to backlash? 

In order to acquire insight into this question, we must first acknowledge a long-standing fact: public attention is unevenly distributed across similarly pressing human rights problems. Several human rights scholars point out that influence makers - whether NGOs, news media, or the UN - shine the spotlight selectively. Some countries guilty of many and horrible abuses never draw much publicity, while others responsible for few abuses, draw much attention.”  

So how do some nations come to occupy a prominent place on the international human rights agenda? Scholars of the boomerang theory argue that nations with strong and well-linked domestic human rights organizations are more likely to be on the receiving end of the global spotlight. Major media outlets and international human rights groups depend on local activists for on-the-ground information, and so nations with a stronger, better networked and more PR savvy domestic human rights presence will be more likely to get their message heard and have their story covered by global public attention. The literature describes this process as Western news outlets and human rights groups “purchasing” causes from local challengers on the “global morality market.” 

But with the rise of information and communications technology, reporters no longer need on-the-ground informants to give them the information they need to cover a human rights story. If an issue becomes “hot” reporters are just as likely to cover it with or without the guidance of locals, depending on alternative sources – social media, for instance – for the information they need. Thus public attention on human rights often correlates more with geopolitical interests and popular fads than the actual severity of human rights conditions or desires of local groups. My own statistical analysis has demonstrated that human rights coverage on the Middle East skyrocketed after 9/11, suggesting our political interests strongly determine our human rights concerns.  

As an example, consider the issue of women’s human rights in Muslim countries, which has become a veritable “hot topic” in Western discourse, with stories of honor killing, female genital mutilation, veiling, and gender oppression saturating the public sphere. One has to look no further than the recent Time magazine cover that depicted a mutilated Afghani girl with the headline “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan” to see the extent in which human rights concerns intertwine with public discourse on the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the general War on Terror. As a result of this onslaught of public attention, feminist and other advocacy groups now see women’s rights concerns in Muslim countries as important and legitimate spaces for action. Big donors want to give money to groups working on the problem. International campaigns circulate petitions and calls-for-action constantly, while fundraisers and charity events are held under the call to “save Muslim women.”  

What this leads to is a corruption of the “boomerang” pattern of influence, which assumes a harmonious relationship between global actors and local activists. Once news of the case or human rights violation reaches the global stage, it can spread at a viral pace as various advocacy groups, political organizations, media channels, and governments respond to it. Very often, Western groups take action without consulting local activists first; as a result, misinformation spreads, and local context is often ignored. This spread of advocacy then spirals out of control while the original local activist or transnational network have little ability to guide appropriate action by the globally concerned.  

Perhaps the most archetypical example of this dynamic is Amina Lawal. Amina’s case exemplified how the strategies of local and international efforts around women’s rights can diverge, and demonstrates the risks involved when international groups intervene in such a case. When human rights causes are “purchased” from local activists (meaning, with their consent and guidance), they are more likely to lead to positive change. But when they are “stolen” (picked up without the consent or guidance of on-the-ground informants), they are more likely to lead to a backlash.

Responsible action: How the west can help local human rights defenders 

My point in raising these risks causes is not to reject, dismiss, or disparage Western attention to human rights concerns. Nor is it to implicitly condone the accusations made by repressive governments by suggesting that we cut off all international solidarity ties lest we be misconstrued as “imperialists.” My main concern is that we ought to know the consequences – intended and unintended – of our actions. Oftentimes, Western-based human rights supporters take action with good intentions, but with poor consequences. And although we, as allies, are not responsible for the repression of local human rights activists, we do have a responsibility to do our due diligence when deciding what action we ought to take. 

So how does one be a responsible global ally? The bottom line is this: let local human rights defenders guide global action. Not all local activists will always agree on the best course of action to take regarding an issue, but when a reasonable consensus exists that a form of intervention is helpful or harmful, we ought to listen and follow their lead. They know their context best, and are most equipped to guide actions that will minimize the risk of backlash.





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