Stephen Hopgood has generated an intense debate about the future of global human rights. All sides of the debate seem to be in agreement with his central thesis, which is that, to be effective, human rights strategies must adapt to a changed, "multipolar world of dispersed state and social power."
Yet as the debate is joined over Hopgood's prescription for more grassroots, movement-based advocacy and Aryeh Neier's response about the perils of mass mobilization and conflation of human rights with social justice, a key implication of Hopgood's analysis has been overlooked.
The dispersal of state and social power applies not just in the international sphere but, to one degree or another, at the national level in almost every country of the world. That creates opportunities to work locally that never existed when the international system of human rights enforcement was first being constructed.
But by focusing on the archetypes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, discussions of where the international human rights movement is heading tend to over-emphasize the arena of international diplomacy, where both organizations by nature focus their efforts.
Is the realm of inter-state relations the place to assess the progress of the global human rights movement? In developed democracies, it is commonly accepted that national actors are most critical in realizing human rights, even if the international human rights system, including the scrutiny of foreign NGOs and peer countries, has a supporting role.
That's true of the United States, where NGOs have been "bringing human rights back home," invoking international human rights standards but through primarily national means. In Europe too, NGOs as well as individuals and their lawyers rely primarily on national means to hold their states to account, albeit within legal systems ultimately subordinated to European standards.
Indeed, we now expect national actors to advance human rights in democratic emerging powers like South Africa, India and Brazil. Can we expect the same in China and Russia? China rejects classic democracy, and Russia does little more than feign it. Neither country pays much heed to the entreaties of peer countries about their human rights records either.
But in both places national actors and larger internal social forces operate as more of a constraint on state power over their citizens than does international diplomacy. When a person unjustly committed to a Chinese mental hospital is released or a transgendered person in Russia gets a publicly funded operation, human rights are being realized. And despite the obstacles, it is primarily advocates working within their national systems who are achieving those results.
The opportunities to collaborate with and support non-governmental initiatives at the national level have increased enormously over the past two decades in those countries, as they have elsewhere in more hospitable environments, like Nigeria, Indonesia and many other countries.
Yet many of the efforts to refashion the human rights movement still take as a given a central role for international diplomacy. NGOs in the Global South are increasingly called on to influence the actions of their foreign ministries on behalf of human rights in other countries as a strategy for addressing the changed geopolitical landscape.
Of course, it cannot hurt the cause of human rights for emerging powers to exert more pressure on human rights violators within the international system. But does that focus create an opportunity cost to other strategies and tactics, such as the creation of new, transnational NGO alliances and the cross-border sharing of skills and know-how to help advance human rights through local initiatives?
A key premise for any human rights NGO operating internationally should be that local advocates know best how, when, and if to draw on the international advocacy toolkit. Locally-driven strategies take into account a rich and diverse set of institutions, political actors and social trends, and they are therefore more likely to produce sustainable change.
International organizing has been and will continue to be one of the strongest forces propelling human rights forward. But the best way to realize human rights on the ground across multiple national contexts is to place primacy on local advocates working within their own environments.
That's the difference between a truly "global" human rights movement and a merely international one.
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