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Can “the people” truly set the agenda?

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The recent Congress of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers prioritized “lawyering for people’s rights,” but what does this really mean? Should we push for more use of human rights declarations written by elites, or is it time for “the people” themselves to set the agenda? From the openGlobalRights debate, Human rights: mass or elite movement? Español

Ursula Levelt
21 May 2014

Although the human rights movement has long been a project of elites, many are working to change this story. Earlier on openGlobalRights, James Ron and colleagues argued that to combat the movement’s elitist slant, human rights organizations should foster grassroots movements worldwide, and human rights in general should be more mass-based. In contrast, Felipe Cordero noted that human rights groups need the support of powerful people and should work with elites as much as possible. Amnesty International’s Steve Crawshaw argued we should not falsely polarize elites and the masses; both are needed, and are mutually dependent.

This article discusses the path forward for the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL).

I recently attended the organization’s 18th Congress, which included lawyers from sixty countries (though notably, none from China or Russia). The IADL was founded in 1946 and soon made a name for itself defending the Suez Canal’s nationalization, the African National Congress, and Palestinian rights. Long dominated by socialists and communists of various stripes, the organization reverted to human rights principles after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but with a twist: “lawyering for people’s rights.” This essentially involves using human rights declarations for legal advocacy purposes. But what exactly does this mean?

As Emilie Hafner-Burton recently argued on openGlobalRights, international human rights work already relies too heavily on international law and institutions. What we need more of, she says, are better links to local efforts. So isn’t it time for “the people,” rather than international human rights groups and declarations, to set the agenda?

The first day of the IADL Congress started with an indictment of “bourgeois liberalism” by Samir Amin, a World Social Forum founder. Amin argued that the right to vote is meaningless, because there is no longer a difference between parties on the right or left: they are all implementing austerity policies ordered by global capital. As a result, he said, democracy is in decline and people either do not bother to vote, or vote only for protest parties on the right or left.

Oya Aslan, an attorney persecuted by the Turkish government, put it even more succinctly: the law of the jungle is taking over from bourgeois liberalism, and we didn’t even like the latter when we had it.

The rest of the Congress, however, was devoted to attorneys showing how they were using the few bourgeois liberal niceties still around: the UN Declaration of Human Rights and its associated conventions, the International Labor Organization and its conventions, and the International Criminal Court.

These international legal tools, however, are having mixed results at best. After three days of discussions, I could count only a few victories on my fingers (this summary will show my bias towards labor issues – one cannot attend all sessions). 

The most obvious forum, classic litigation, may be the least promising. Most exemplary have been the Argentinian courts: many military officials serving under the dictatorship of General Videla have been convicted, and litigation to obtain indemnification for the victims of Operation Condor is moving in a promising direction. There was also a poignant discussion about the few instruments of international justice that have actually led to real institutions, such as the ad hoc international tribunals and now the International Court of Criminal Justice. Peter Erlander, of the National Lawyers Guild, US affiliate of the IADL, denounced the justice dispensed by these institutions as “victors’ justice.”

Naming and shaming campaigns seem more effective, as shown by reports from the campaign to hold FIFA accountable for the way the new World Cup stadium in Qatar is being built, to a Freedom of Association Protocol in Indonesia, and the Rana Plaza Accord in Bangladesh. 

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“Naming and shaming.” Campaigns garnering media exposure have given way to substantive results, argues Levelt. Among these include demonstrations against the mistreatment of migrant construction workers in Qatar building stadiums ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022 (top right), and rallies by fast food employees demanding higher wages (bottom left). Clockwise from top left: Rui Alexandre Araujo/Shutterstock (All rights reserved); Paul Davey/Demotix (All rights reserved); Pola Damonte/Shutterstock (All rights reserved); Light Brigading/Flickr (Some rights reserved)

Legislative victories, on the other hand, are few and far between. After a long struggle, for example, Togo has started to apply its own labor laws to its free trade zones, resulting in the emergence of several trade unions. The Labour Party’s struggle against zero hour contracts in the United Kingdom are aimed at securing legislation to ban such contracts. Most countries do not have strong enough political parties on the left to make this an option, which is exactly Samir Amin’s point.

After all this, I conclude that appeals to human rights are only heard and taken seriously, in the courts or by large corporations, when there is political space to hear them. Simply applying the law and asking courts to incorporate governmental lip service into national law is not the road to victory. 

But where does this political space come from? Some countries have not succumbed life and limb to neoliberalism and are still trying to limit the power of economic and military forces. The remains of bourgeois liberalism are still active in these places, but these same countries are losing their ability to withstand pressure. It seems almost as if one must buck the global economy to provide room for human rights litigation. For example, Argentina is one of very few countries to refuse to pay back its debt on international lenders’ terms, and it is arguably the country where some of the world’s greatest human rights victories are now originating.

It was also interesting to hear the call for a reinvigoration of national sovereignty so that the people, instead of the masters of the global economy, could set policy priorities. I am sure that in the past these same nation-states were seen as handmaidens for domestic capitalists. Now, people are treating them as our only hope for standing against global capitalism.

Ultimately, political space comes from political power. And for those supporting organizations like the IADL, that power has to come from “the people.” For me, it is difficult to see the entire set of human rights declarations as an expression of what people really want. Governments made these declarations when national elites found it useful to support the document’s view of human dignity.

That is not to say that human rights declarations don’t overlap with what people want. But let’s listen to what real people have to say. In the United States, and with my bias, I hear a clamor for a living wage, a demand vindicated by article 23 of the UDHR. This can be used to strengthen the resolve of activists: your demand is recognized in a declaration your own government once signed. But article 23 will not, in and of itself, lead to legal victory.

Political victory for a living wage will happen when people organize sufficiently to pass the appropriate legislation; believe it or not, this is starting to happen. It is the only way to ensure that lawsuits against low-wage employers like McDonalds finally get media coverage, and to provide the pressure required to resolve those suits successfully. Again, this becomes a naming and shaming situation. 

After many decades celebrating the triumph of neoliberalism, it is clear that people have not lost their sense of justice. Calls for justice are loud and clear, whether in human rights language or not, and time and again it happens that powerful players find they can no longer ignore these demands. If international human rights documents have done anything at all, it has been to keep the belief in justice alive and to give us a vision of another society where the market does not reign alone. 

At this particular turn in time, the question is whether we should keep calling for the realization of these liberal bourgeois niceties that have kept the flame burning. They have kept some of the excesses of the economic and military apparatus in check. They have been funded by philanthropists. They have been the best we could do, amidst the triumph of neoliberalism.

But there are signals that this triumph has finally played itself out in a tailspin of financialization. This reduction of everything into financial terms is alienating larger and larger segments of the world’s population. If the law of the jungle now reigns, will it push people to give political units more power over the economy again, as much as they will be penalized by the economic mega-powers in the short run? How, then, will we control these political units? And isn’t that the legal framework we should be working on to really be able to “lawyer for peoples’ rights?”

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