The global community of human rights advocates and scholars rightly criticizes the spread of gated communities worldwide, patrolled by private security and in which the elite find protection. However, in our own debates we seem to mimic this trend, and, consciously or not, spend a disproportionate effort on gatekeeping. For example, in some sectors of academia and activism there are continued efforts to build a wall between “core” human rights and other rights (like social and economic rights). This despite the fact that social movements, NGOs, the courts, international treaties and contemporary theories of justice brought down that wall, built largely by scholars and advocates in the global North.
Similar to gated communities, gatekeeping efforts multiply in times of uncertainty and insecurity like those the human rights field is experiencing today. Due to the combined effect of geopolitical, social and technological changes, we are engaged in strategic and even existential debates like the ones taking place on openGlobalRights. The human rights ‘neighborhood’ is changing: the traditional gatekeepers (northern governments and international NGOs) no longer have the same power as before in an increasingly multi-polar world. Trespassing has become the norm as new actors (from e-activists to local NGOs) circumvent the gates by directly networking with each other across borders; and the very borders of the field (north or south, elite or grassroots, legal or non-legal) are being contested.
Given this context, efforts to provide clarity amidst the turbulence are necessary. Thus, the questions about the priorities and legalism of the human rights movement raised by Emilie Hafner-Burton are timely, particularly as they are based on empirical research. However, the conclusions that Hafner-Burton extracts from her analysis –that “…we need to set more priorities based on the likely consequences of success” which implies “… prioritizing some rights and some places over others”— are problematic, both empirically and strategically.
From an empirical point of view, it is at odds with key transformations in the context in which human rights work takes place. The proposal implies that there is a group of actors that set the priorities, and, therefore, act as gatekeepers who determine the international human rights agenda. Thus, Hafner-Burton sees the key actors as a limited number of “steward states” willing to promote human rights around the world through their foreign policy. The protagonists - the “we” of the proposal – are these states and, probably, the international NGOs with direct access to them.
If this proposal sounds familiar, it is because it describes the predominant way in which the international human rights agenda has traditionally been set, with disproportionate influence from Washington, Brussels, Geneva or London. Yet, looking forward, it is increasingly out of pace with the growing reality of a multi-polar world, a fragmented governance system and a human rights movement that is much more diverse and decentralized than that of past decades.
The centrifugal pressure in the field is also brought on by information and telecommunications technology, and the rise of “network societies”. Priority setting and strategic planning are fundamental tasks in bureaucratic forms of organization characterized by hierarchical structures and centralized decision-making. But they become less relevant and feasible in the network-like structures that key actors in the field have increasingly adopted, from inter-governmental governance bodies to transnational social movements and multinational corporations.
The cumulative effect of these transformations has led to decentralized action via networks and an explosion of actors who use the language and the values of human rights and who have broken down the walls of the gated community. Among them are grassroots groups, online activists, religious organizations, think tanks, artists’ collectives, scientific organizations, film makers, and many other individuals and organizations around the world that are mobilizing for human rights through new tactics like online campaigns that have put effective pressure on states and private actors to comply with human rights.
In this new context, Hafner-Burton’s proposal of “prioritizing some rights and places over others”, if taken as a prescription for the human rights movement as a whole, is also problematic from a strategic point of view. First, who would set the priorities in such a plural and decentralized field? What criterion and procedures would be used to distinguish ‘core’ rights from other rights, or to justify Hafner-Burton’s assertion, that “…discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity” is the “[th]e one big, and urgent” issue in need of international regulation?
Second, while Hafner-Burton rightly criticizes too little attention being given to the implementation of legal standards, even as new ones are proposed (as well as the legitimacy costs associated with agreeing standards that can’t be enforced!), it is equally important to realize that gatekeeping has costs of its own. A loss of legitimacy is not the least of them. Gated communities, by definition, operate with a double standard - one for insiders, another one for outsiders. In a growingly multi-polar world, the so-called ‘steward states’ exemption from international scrutiny has become a fundamental problem for the legitimacy of human rights. With increasing confidence, emerging powers and other southern states cite such an asymmetry in order to deflect criticisms of their human rights violations and demand similar exemptions. This was clear, for instance, for those of us who participated in a campaign to counter the efforts by several Latin American states to weaken the enforcement powers of the Inter-American human rights system. They argued that the United States was demanding compliance with decisions of the Inter-American Commission and Court, even as it ignored the Commission’s recommendation to close down Guantánamo; and the US has not ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.
In sum, the call for priority setting is important at the organizational level (although even at that scale its results are far from clear, as the likelihood of success is not the only relevant criterion for determining priorities). But when extrapolated to the human rights field as a whole – to the “we in the international human rights community” that Hafner-Burton writes about – it is unfeasible and even counterproductive. This field is a diverse ecosystem, not a hierarchy, as I’ve argued before.
Priority setting should thus be but one of many equally important questions: What modes of collaboration between different types of actors (professional/non-professional, northern/southern, domestic/international) can lead to more effective action? What types of new organizations and connections would need to be created in order to strengthen the human rights ecosystem as a whole? What types of strategies would be needed to combine the strengths of specialized legal advocacy, scientific knowledge and street mobilizations?
In a complex and interdependent world, our questions need to be informed by biology as much as by management. We need to spend less time on gatekeeping and more time on symbiosis.