Elites still matter when protecting human rights

Ron, Crow and Golden argue that human rights organizations should foster grassroots movements worldwide. Elite-focused approaches remain essential, however, especially in highly unequal countries such as Mexico and Colombia. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, “Human rights: mass or elite movement?”. Español

Felipe Cordero
20 January 2014

The “Human Rights Perception Polls” described on openGlobalRights by Ron, Crow and Golden confirm what many have long suspected: the rich find it easier to acquire human rights language, concepts and contacts than the poor, much like material goods, education, and healthcare.

Based on these findings, the authors argue that human rights organizations should do a better job of connecting with grassroots, including what they call, “new and better mobilization strategies.” Human rights, they argue, should become more mass-based than elite-oriented.

I disagree. Although inequality is indeed a leading source of abuse, it also concentrates political, social and economic power in a very small number of hands. As a result, oftentimes the quickest and most effective way for human rights groups to promote change is to build bridges with the elite. After all, with support from some of these powerful people, human rights groups can do an enormous amount of good, including the creation of safe spaces for grassroots activists to operate.

Consider two countries I know well, Mexico and Colombia, both of which are highly unequal. In 2009, according to the United Nations Human Development Report, Mexico’s wealthiest 10 percent earned 21 times more than the poorest 10 percent. In Colombia, they earned 60.4 times more. This disparity is far greater than the average for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states - which includes Mexico and may soon, possibly, also include Colombia - where the richest 10 percent earn nine times more than the poorest 10 percent.

In addition, social mobility in Mexico and Colombia is quite limited. As one recent Mexican study demonstrates, most intergenerational mobility occurs within the country’s middle class, rather than at the extremes of wealth and poverty. Some 48 percent of Mexicans raised in a household located in the poorest quintile go onto live in similarly poor households as adults. Of those born into the highest income bracket, moreover, 52 percent remain there as adults. A recent Colombian study suggests the same is true there.

By contrast, in the United Kingdom - where social mobility is generally considered fairly low compared to other developed countries- only 37 percent of children born to parents in the poorest quartile remain there as adults.

Education, of course, is a major potential catalyst of social mobility, but schooling in both Colombia and Mexico is severely challenged. In both countries, according to the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, the academic performance of 15 year olds ranks among the lowest 20 percent in mathematics, reading and science.

Underlying poor educational outcomes, the PISA survey says, is socio-economic inequality. Wealthier parents minimize the effects of poor schooling by enrolling their children in schools with better teachers, programs and infrastructure. As a result, PISA explains, schools often “reproduce existing patterns of socio-economic advantage, rather than create a more equitable distribution of learning opportunities and outcomes.”

Given Colombia and Mexico’s poor performance on inequality, social mobility and education, gross power and economic disparities are likely to endure in the medium term. Most of the poorest inhabitants will remain poor and vulnerable to abuse, and most of the elite will continue to wield disproportionate power over the economy and public policy.

Implications for human rights organizations

This means that human rights groups working in these and other high-inequality countries will have to work with elites as much as possible. They will have to persuade influential players to permit the creation of safe spaces for grassroots activists to pursue social justice, and to enact laws protecting human rights defenders.

Consider Peace Brigades International, which engages members of the political, economic or social elite through dialogue, serving as a trusted bridge to the broader population. Although the Brigades are an international grassroots movement, they do not themselves engage in mass mobilization or social protest in specific countries. Instead, they accompany and protect local grassroots activists seeking to express their concerns and grievances.

Human rights groups should copy the Brigades’ methods. They should dialogue with the powerful and seek to change their behavior through political advocacy. Their goal should be to convince elites to permit safe spaces for other grassroots activists to pursue justice through national legal frameworks.

Human rights groups should indeed engage with the grassroots, but they should do so in a way that encourages the pursuit of non-violent, legal means of protest. After all, mobilization in and of itself is no guarantee of greater human rights protections. Some social protestors may themselves engage in human rights abuses, while in other cases, grassroots mobilization may simply lead to even more violence on all sides. Escalation of this kind makes it difficult for both international and local rights groups to operate, since some members of the elite can always use the law, illegal violence, or both, to prevent human rights work.

The first task for human rights groups in highly unequal contexts is to understand relations of political, economic and social power. Then, they must use that knowledge to build dense, cross-class networks. Finally, they should use those links to help courageous individuals and groups assert their rights without being harassed, threatened, imprisoned, or killed.


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