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Democracy, diversity and the global human rights movement

Stephen Hopgood
21 April 2014

There is a great deal with which to agree in recent posts by David Petrasek and Iain Levine, both of whom have worked with distinction at the highest levels in global human rights organizations. Both focus on the viability, even vitality, of transnational human right activism and on the somewhat illusory nature of the supposed North-South distinction within the human rights movement on which I have commented previously. It is for human rights advocates to help steer this rapidly evolving movement through the difficulties it may face in a world radically different from that of 1776, 1789, 1948 or even 1998 (the date the Rome Statute that founded the International Criminal Court was agreed). Tackling without illusions the implications of transformative change is a prerequisite for making smart decisions that will enable the achievements claimed for decades of human rights advocacy to be secured and extended in our changing world. To do so there are several issues that the would-be leaders of a more truly global human rights movement might do well to consider.

First, is there a core set of human rights to whose realisation all members of the burgeoning global human rights movement (GHRM) must be committed? Must every member be against the death penalty and torture, and in favour of reproductive and LGBT rights? Must they all agree to support the right to food? Which should be a priority in terms of global action? And what about funding? If the money flows North to South, won’t priorities do the same? What will this mean for campaigns on the right to food, medicine, healthcare, shelter? Why did George Soros not give $100m to ten human rights organizations in the South, rather than to the already well-funded Human Rights Watch, and say ‘spend it on the issues that are priorities for you?’

Second, Petrasek points to the vast projected expansion in the global middle class, but does this suggest that promoting free trade, mobile money and open markets is the best way to ensure human rights? Doesn’t this mean we should promote globalization as rapidly as possible rather than campaign for human rights? If so, what does this tell us about the prospects for social justice and the poor, or about accountability for multinational corporations? Is the GHRM a middle-class phenomenon?

Third, how might the GHRM deal with places and issues that are politicized beyond redemption? It is unlikely the Chinese or Russian governments will ever talk about human rights in the way human rights advocates understand them. Moreover, when organizations like the Russian Orthodox Church claim they promote human rights, just not those characteristic of the liberal, moralizing west - who is to gainsay them with authority in the modern world? Is pointing to the law enough? Isn’t creating a ‘culture of human rights’ essential? In sum, who now has the authority to say what human rights actually are and are not

Fourth, how will the GHRM fare if it is perceived to be in alignment with the demands western governments often make for the extension of democracy, markets and the rule of law? This is the problem of hypocrisy. It creates cynicism and mistrust amongst those whose support is often demanded on moral grounds by governments who then go on to break their own rules. For many human rights advocates, isn’t the United States the problem as well as the answer? So long as the United States insists on claiming exceptions for itself (Guantanamo, the International Criminal Court, the Landmines Treaty), aren’t all western-based NGOs increasingly going to suffer by association?

Fifth, the evident fatigue with large promises and only small, concrete gains, is not just scepticism or even cynicism. It might be a sign of structural ineffectiveness. The International Criminal Court has so far had two successful prosecutions at extraordinary financial cost. Despite clear evidence of crimes against humanity, it has taken five years to get the UN Human Rights Council to pass a resolution establishing an independent investigation into the abuses committed at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. This says nothing about how or whether the Sri Lankan president – extremely popular with ethnic Sinhalese for his handling of the war – will comply. The failure to successfully shame ASEAN about its human rights declaration, article 8 of which mirrors the Universal Declaration but is in effect an autocrat’s charter, might be seen in the same light, as well as the determined efforts of President Kenyatta of Kenya to avoid trial at the ICC.

Finally, what about situations where the language of human rights and demands for legal reforms might damage an existing consensus? And what about other languages – religious, political, ethical, values-based – that do not reflect the individualized conception of human freedoms classically embodied by the notion of rights, but which still have a progressive social message? 

A movement is anchored in the shared life circumstances of its members, in their common identity, ideology, beliefs and fears. Successful movements tend to be bottom-up, democratic, chaotic and multivocal. They are open as to means and often ambiguous as to precise ends. They seek security, freedom, accountability and justice in many registers. They contain trade-offs and contradictions. But in this great coming together of people they also impose, at their best, an unstoppable will on established powers. The Arab Spring is our most potent contemporary example. A huge amount can be achieved through this form of transnational activism. The question is how to bring it about when threats to human rights are so omnipresent and even intensifying. Practical suggestions for ‘democratizing’ this movement are an essential first step.

In its 2013 Human Development Report, the UNDP mentions ‘human rights’ 14 times by my count, and ‘equity’ more than 40. Questions of equity are just as important within the human rights movement as they are outside, a topic that the openGlobalRights website has been instrumental in helping facilitate. Why doesn’t George Soros fund a conference in the heart of the South, in India perhaps, and bring together a diverse collection of human rights advocates from all over the world, North and South, and let them each speak about their conception of human rights to a worldwide global audience? Then we might see what genuine democracy in the human rights field is all about.

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