The antithesis of elitism

The author refutes the charge of elitism. Such long, unpaid and mostly unsung work undertaken by local Amnesty groups was its antithesis. And then there was the start-up support for small local ngo’s drawing on international human rights law. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movement?

2 August 2013

To describe AI or HRW as élite organizations is to mistake the spirit in which they came into being and were sustained. It is more a reflection of the prevailing perception that the North itself constitutes an élite in relation to the (deprived and exploited) South - a huge over-simplification, given the well-documented role of élites in the South, not to mention the growing gap between rich and poor in what used to be called the First World.

Such commentaries often forget that Amnesty in particular was born in a spirit of solidarity with people detained for their beliefs, and rapidly grew into a truly international membership organisation bringing together ordinary, though often exceptional, people from around the world. Its basic techniques of adoption created long-term personal links between local groups of committed individuals with prisoners and their families, often over extended periods of months or years, while the basic strategy of letter-writing campaigns (which must now appear quaint to the Twitter generation) was a precursor of today's mass Avaaz-type pétitions, though far more personal and adapted to the specifics of each prisoner or torture victim.

In those early days of seemingly immovable dictatorships, the image of slow but inexorable change by water dripping on stone was often evinced (as for instance in the title of a ‘biography’ of Amnesty published in 2001) to sustain hope for the eventual release from detention or cruel treatment of the individual concerned. And released they were, in their hundreds if not thousands over the years. Such long, unpaid and mostly unsung work undertaken by local Amnesty groups was the antithesis of élitism, and was grounded in a strong sense that human rights were to be shared, exercised and enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their status or origin.

Work to develop Amnesty groups in countries of the global South, undertaken by remarkable individuals like Gerson guKonu and Ahmed Othmani, drew on the same egalitarian sense in which AI was founded. But despite their success in helping Amnesty sections and groups come into being in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, this work showed the limits such an approach could have in countries where the cost of a postage-stamp had to compete with the struggle for daily subsistence.

Nonetheless, in these regions, and across Asia, the Pacific and Latin America, AI grew into a truly worldwide movement with a strong and inspiring sense of shared values based on the human rights conventions (to which AI contributed among many other initiatives its long-term campaign for a convention against torture). The fact that many of its southern members were also - and from an early stage -- committed social justice campaigners was no accident: such activists naturally gravitated around Amnesty's work. The two domains were mutually supporting, but separate, in that AI's approach remained "apolitical" in seeking to avoid accusations of political bias in its interventions in the political sphere.

In contrast to AI, HRW grew out of the Helsinki Watch movement of the 1980s into a high-profile, media-oriented human rights organization with a strong prosecutorial bent, and as such introduced the idea of "naming and shaming" perpetrators of human rights abuses as its key strategy.

Like AI, it based its credibility and moral authority to do this on the recognized need for accurate and highly professional research which could stand the test of public scrutiny and official denials from the governments it targeted. Its points of legal and ethical reference, like Amnesty's, reside in the dense body of interconnected international and regional human rights treaties and laws that have developed over the intervening years. But always with the underlying assumption that this body of law constitutes the birthright and protection of every human being on the planet. To deride international human rights law as somehow the preserve of an élite is an absurd and self-defeating argument. Because it is interpreted and mediated by lawyers and diplomats, it may give the impression of belonging to them, but for human rights organizations large and small it is the currency of their daily work, and the ethical and legal underpinning for their own credibility and existence.

I can vouch for this. Having been involved with Amnesty's first overseas research outpost, set up in 1978 (and about be most unwisely disbanded by Amnesty in 2014) to cover the situations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb, I left in 1991 to work for the Ford Foundation as its "Rights & Social Justice" officer in East Africa. At the end of the Cold War, new human rights organisations were springing up throughout the region, and existing social justice initiatives emerging from various forms of camouflage into the newly opened public domain. Such small NGOs were not, and are often still not, self-sustaining - as Amnesty had found, there is no critical mass of local "chuggers" to help pay for them. And very little local philanthropy (despite the best efforts of Ford and other foundations to promote it).

Was the start-up support given by Ford and other expatriate donors then "élitist"? Perhaps. But, in the sense of helping these nascent local NGOs work to create a constituency of informed citizens prepared to stand up for their rights, the aims and spirit of this financial and moral support was, and is, far more democratic in outlook. That there is now a host of local human rights and rights-based voluntary groups, and a strong civil society, in the countries of the South has been a hugely encouraging development over the past 20-odd years. But it should not be seen in opposition to those many committed individuals in the global North who share their aims and their approach, and who view their work as interdependent and mutually supportive.

Condensing these thoughts into a few paragraphs will inevitably appear ‘reductionist’ to some and over-simplification to others (including myself). But it is important for present-day critics to make the imaginative leap into those past heady days when the human rights movement was up against a solid rockface of tyranny, but did indeed belong to everyone. Let's not try to divide it into élites and marginalized others. To do so would be a disservice to the strengths of the movement, which lie in its sense of common humanity and of pro-active solidarity.


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