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Introducing openGlobalRights’ newest debate: public opinion and human rights – what can (and can’t) be learned from surveys?

Today’s human rights networks are sophisticated, dense, and multifaceted. Access to the debates shaping these networks’ activities, however, is still restricted by language, money, ideology, and power.

James Ron
30 June 2015

openGlobalRights (oGR) is a multilingual, online forum dedicated to debating human rights work from all perspectives. On it, editors cultivate new and established authors, highlight cutting edge disagreements, and publish work by advocates, practitioners and scholars worldwide. They take special care to highlight perspectives from the global South, and encourage debate across global cleavages of all kinds.

Since its launch in June 2013, oGR has cultivated several debates including, emerging powers and human rights, funding for human rights, religion and human rights, the International Criminal Court and most recently, on internationalizing human rights organizations.

This week, James Ron introduces a new debate theme on public opinion and human rights. 

The new debate 

Human rights groups have long argued that their job is to uphold norms, laws, and principles, even if this isolates them from the political mainstream. In recent years, however, a growing number of scholars and handful of activists have begun using opinion polls to better understand the public’s attitude towards human rights issues. In some cases, groups have used these analyses to adjust their messages, craft new outreach efforts, or build new fund raising strategies. In this debate authors explore the following questions: What research has been done in this area, and how useful is it? Should human rights groups use polling results to adjust their messages and strategy? If so, when and how? What additional research should scholars be doing and how can they work with activists? Should foundations and other donors support this work? If yes, how 

To explore these questions, openGlobalRights launches this new, multilingual debate on public opinion and human rights with essays by leading scholars and practitioners.

The debate begins with a short piece by Kathy Frankovic, a leading polling expert. She explores the utility of opinion polls for the human rights community in the wake of recent pre-election polling problems in Britain. Similarly, Sarah Mendelson, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells rights groups they should use survey data to become more resilient and effective. In a third article, my research team and I present findings from polls we conducted in four countries, which suggest that human rights activists can feel cautiously optimistic about their public reputations.

On Tuesday, analyst Dahlia Scheindlin describes findings from a recent opinion poll on attitudes towards human rights issues and organizations in Israel. Jewish-Israelis, she finds, are less supportive of human rights organizations than of the general concept of human rights. Jessica Montell, former director of the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, reflects on that organizations use of polls to identify wedge issues, tailor the message, and measure impact.

Scholars Dona-Gene Barton, Courtney Hillebrecht and Sergio Wals on Wednesday discuss survey data linking Mexican citizens’  perceptions of human rights and evaluations of their political leaders. David Crow discusses 2014 survey findings that explore the link between associating human rights with "protecting criminals” and living in high-crime areas. 

On Thursday, scholars Sarah Kreps and Geoffrey Wallace argue that their survey experiments suggest that US public on drone strikes can be swayed by appeals to international law. Scholars Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino, however, argue that their own surveys show that Americans care more about protecting US military lives than preventing “collateral damage.” 

We close the week on Friday with articles from South Korea and the UK. Sociologist Jeong-Woo Koo describes his survey of public opinion on human rights in South Korea, while Rachel Krys, communications director at Equally Ours, explains how opinion research can help improve rights groups’ outreach strategies in the UK.

In the weeks and months to follow, openGlobalRights will expand the debate with contributions from activists, scholars, and others worldwide. 

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