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Doing Orwell proud: “human rights” slogans in Mexico

Familiarity with the term “human rights” can cause more harm than good when government sloganeering co-opts its meaning.  Empowering the grassroots with the agency to interpret and use human rights is the key to effective mobilization. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movement Español

Barbara Frey
3 February 2014

Previously on openGlobalRights, authors Ron, Crow and Golden described a survey they conducted in Mexico, Colombia, India and Morocco. Unsurprisingly, they discovered that the term, “human rights,” registers more with elites than with the masses. 

But what does this finding really mean? 

For human rights to be meaningful at the grassroots, it must be linked to the actual power to make positive change. Just hearing the term will not lead people to embrace its significance. Overuse of the term, moreover, will suck the idea of its very lifeblood, much as government propaganda did for “love,” “peace” and “plenty” in 1984, George Orwell’s famous dystopia. 

One of the survey’s key questions was how often respondents heard the term “human rights” in their daily lives. After living half of 2013 in Mexico City, I was not surprised at the high level of positive responses the surveyors received. Some 90% of Mexican elites and 40% of the general Mexican public reported that they heard the Spanish words for human rights, derechos humanos, on a very regular basis. 

I can testify that the population in Mexico City is indeed saturated with the words, “human rights.” But this is by no means a good thing. 

I was in Mexico to research and teach about human rights, and was thus initially impressed to hear and see constant public service announcements declaring the importance of human rights. Living in the United States, I am accustomed to reading articles about human rights in the news. Rarely, however, had I seen a “human rights advertisement.” 

Yet in Mexico, no matter what radio station I had on, I was assured at least three times an hour that I had human rights, you had human rights, and that we all had human rights. 

One ubiquitous ad focused on the rights of Central American migrants, intoning the word “welcome” in about five different voices, followed by a narrator declaring that migrants in Mexico have rights, too. I assumed this message surprised migrants as much as it surprised me, as their abuse by both official and private Mexican actors is commonplace

I saw “human rights” posters on Mexico City buses and plastered on the walls of metro stops. There is even one metro station on the #3 line that is called “Derechos Humanos,” taking its name from the impressive grounds of the Mexico City Human Rights Commission across the street. 

No wonder that Mexican elites and the general public are familiar with the term. They can’t escape it. “Human rights” sloganeering saturates the city, drenching both poor and rich, abusers and abused. As a human rights advocate, however, these frequent public service announcements gave me a sinking feeling. 

Why? 

First, because it was evident that despite what these ads said, people living in Mexico City could not claim their human rights in a meaningful way. Even in Mexico City, with its progressive vision and significant economic and social strengths, people live without personal security, clean air, potable water, or steady work. Viewing a poster telling me that I had human rights while I was suffocating in the midst of a mob on the metro felt positively Orwellian. “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.” 

The Mexican human rights message is in fact Orwellian. The government’s human rights institutions pay for this advertising with a huge promotional budget, and chief among these is the National Commission on Human Rights, an institution that Human Rights Watch aptly called, “chronicler of the status quo.” 

As Ron, Crow and Golden point out, elites – including the men and women who work in the state-run human rights agency – may cause more human rights problems than they cure. In Mexico and elsewhere, they note, elites pay human rights “lip service while continuing their business as usual.” 

The Mexican government’s deluge of happy human rights messages deters ordinary people from considering human rights as a lever of significant social change. Maybe that is why various social justice NGOs, including some Mexican feminist groups and environmental groups, refuse to self identify as “human rights organizations.” They just don’t see the human rights framework as giving them any real power.

For real change to happen, there need to be mediations up and down the chain of power, something touched upon here, here and here by other openGlobalRights authors.

In Mexico, locally based NGOs who successfully serve as “intermediaries,” including the indigenous rights group, Tlachinollan, or the Nuevo Leone-based organization, CADHAC, mobilize effectively in their local communities while also carrying out strategic national and international advocacy. These intermediary groups interpret claims from the grassroots upward, using the human rights framework to combat powerful and oppressive forces. Likewise, they interpret human rights decisions and findings back down to the community. 

Unfortunately, however, few NGOs, in Mexico or elsewhere, can serve both these critical functions. 

People only mobilize for “human rights” when the term is more than an empty slogan. Only when it is broken down into useful, actionable concepts -- such as stopping police abuse, mandating accountability for crimes, preventing exploitative corporate practices or ensuring clean drinking water – do both ordinary people and grassroots organizations embrace the term, “human rights.”

People will believe in human rights when they see it make a real difference. Orwellian announcements of the kind promoted today in Mexico will not help, and may in fact do far more harm than good.

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