Activists and elites: connecting the dots

The discussion about elites and grassroots in the human rights movement is important – but can sometimes confuse as much as it illuminates. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movementEspañolالعربية

Steve Crawshaw
12 February 2014

In recent months, a bevy of openGlobalRights authors have addressed perceived elitism in the world of human rights, along with the dangers of human rights activists becoming detached from the grassroots.

James Ron and colleagues kicked the debate off by noting that human rights language and activities are often “better established among elites.” Drawing on surveys they conducted in Colombia, India, Mexico and Morocco, these authors concluded, “Those who stand to benefit most from human rights norms—the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed—have less access to the human rights tools they need.”

Those findings should not be lightly set aside. 

Admittedly, elite involvement can promote human rights change. Influencing policymakers and those they listen to, the influencers of the influential, offers an obvious potential shortcut to positive reform.

Thus, the campaign for the global UN Arms Trade Treaty, agreed last year, succeeded in part because senior policymakers and their advisers were persuaded that the ideas in the treaty were worthwhile, and that the cost of not acting could be dangerously high. That lobbying process included endless formal and informal meetings, in conference rooms large and small, in corridors and in cafes. In short, it required engaging daily with political elites.

But this kind of privileged access to decision makers could not alone create the seismic public opinion shift that led to the treaty’s creation. The treaty makes it illegal to sell arms to countries where there is a substantial risk that the weapons will be used to commit atrocities. Such a treaty seemed unthinkable until a few short years ago, and it came about because of mass public pressure and grass roots mobilization.

Until an issue of this sort has popular appeal, politicians tend to be wary, at best. During the campaign for a ban on landmines in the 1990s, one foreign minister publicly declared  that the mere idea of such a treaty was “hopelessly utopian” and would never happen “in the real world which the rest of us inhabit.” He was far from alone in that dismissive belief.

The Landmine Treaty eventually came about, however, because of mass public pressure. In Cambodia alone, hundreds of thousands signed the call for a landmine ban; in a country that had suffered so terribly from mine injuries, ordinary people instinctively understood the treaty’s global and local importance.

Worldwide, 1,200 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) joined together to call for a landmine treaty. In 1997, two years after the minister’s “hopelessly utopian” comment, that ban became reality.

Elsewhere on openGlobalRights, academic Stephen Hopgood writes that we are now in the “endtimes of human rights.” Reasonably enough, he suggests there is a problem if “western NGOs have failed to connect with southern publics beyond the elite level,” and that international human rights groups today must make progress “by successfully allying with civil society in the south.”

But is it really so outlandish to think that the human rights advocacy dots can be joined between north and south?

We should not create a false distinction between the elite and grassroots work. In reality, both are needed. They are mutually supportive and mutually dependent. 

This is not, as Middle East advocate Fateh Azzam rightly points out, an either/or issue “between grass roots social/political movements committed to longer-term vision of equality and justice, or institutionalized and career-minded professional advocates.” 

To turn this debate into an either/or story is to miss the impact of human rights change completely. To succeed in combating human rights violations, those who care must work at multiple levels and in multiple ways. 

Nobody can doubt today’s shift in global power, along with the proliferation of acronyms. In addition to the older notion of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), we now have the MINTs (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), the TIMBIs (Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, and India), and IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa).

Changing geopolitics, the growing clout of southern economies, and abuses by these powers does not spell the endtimes of human rights, however, but instead provides an opportunity for building stronger coalitions with and within southern civil societies.

Hopgood divides the human rights world into upper case Human Rights  - an “ideology” supposedly imposed from abroad - and lower case human rights, a more “malleable,” “diverse” and “pragmatic” arena of real world activism.  

But real life is not so easily separated. Activists and advocates around the world, from the District of Columbia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, remain true to the principles of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds up remarkably well, more than 65 years on.

And, at the same time, many of those selfsame activists and advocates already embrace adaptability and ensure the diversity that Hopgood is calling for, knowing this is the best way to achieve change.

Are global human rights organizations sufficiently in touch with the aspirations of those they seek to represent? The question is legitimate – not least because it would be so damaging and depressing if the answer was “no.” But the implied premise of that question crumbles upon closer examination.

For local NGOs, the “them-and-us” distinction between those who suffer from violations and those who fight abuses is meaningless. Both victims and many domestic human rights defenders are on the front line. Global human rights NGOs, in turn, have long partnered with these local activists, who provide the international groups with their very raison d’etre.

Importantly, moreover, the world’s largest human rights organizations are significantly expanding their presence in the global south.

Amnesty International, for example, has opened new national offices in Brazil and India; these are set to grow significantly in the years to come, with substantial local support. Amnesty International is opening new regional “hub” offices in Dakar, Johannesburg and Nairobi in the next few months, with more to come in the next few years. Already, Amnesty has racked up notable campaigning successes as a result of these changes. In India, to take just one example, Amnesty International’s campaign to ensure justice in Sri Lanka quickly gained more than a million supporters – which all helped build pressure at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where a key resolution will be voted on next month.

None of this means human rights victories are easy to achieve, in either the global north or south. But is progress achievable? Yes, absolutely. Experience has already proved that in past decades.

With a more global approach to human rights advocacy and activism – encompassing elites and mass movements alike, in both north and south – we are living through a new phase of the human rights struggle, not its endtimes.  


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData