Firm yet flexible: keeping human rights organisations relevant


With issues and actors constantly evolving, traditional human rights organizations and activists must balance conventional and innovative methods. EspañolPortuguês

Lucia Nader
15 April 2015

The mass protests spreading from Cairo to Istanbul, Madrid to Santiago, and from Tunis to São Paulo, all demonstrate that millions worldwide seek more just, dignified and humane societies. In fact, an analysis of recent protests in 90 countries suggests that achieving “real democracy” is a major theme in most street protests.

It would be naïve to believe, however, that protestors’ demands are all directly related to human and minority rights. Nor does this new mobilization signify a definitive break with conventional social organisations and institutions.

Still, recent mass protests highlight features increasingly prevalent in today’s world: a multiplicity of actors and struggles, widespread critique and a crisis of representation of public institutions, and the increasing political empowerment of individuals.

What does all this mean for “traditional” civil society organizations in the 21st century, particularly human rights groups?

I suggest three hypotheses: First, human rights organizations will have to engage with many new struggles and interlocutors, at all levels. Second, they will have to reconsider the way they relate to, and try to influence, state institutions. And third, rights groups will have to do a better job of engaging individuals with their causes. In the months to come, we will explore these themes in a series of openGlobalRights articles and other resources.


Human rights groups must still work on “traditional” issues, including torture or arbitrary imprisonment. But they will also encounter a range of new issues. Human rights groups must still work on “traditional” issues, including torture or arbitrary imprisonment. But they will also encounter a range of new issues, such as the “right to the city,” which stresses mobility and urban planning, or digital privacy, which requires detailed technological knowledge. These and other new areas can stretch human rights groups in unforeseen ways.

The human rights community’s “interlocutors” are also increasingly varied. In years past, most human rights NGOs focused on the state or international organizations; today, we all know that commercial and financial interests are also sources of abuse. Human rights groups are developing the arguments and techniques required to address private actors, but more expertise is necessary.

Where, for example, should rights activists attempt to fight against abusive companies? Hypothetically, when a Chinese multinational whose main business is in Europe uses public funding to commit violations in an African country, who is responsible, and how can human rights groups hold them to account? Which jurisdictions should they target?

Relatedly, should domestic rights groups continue to focus chiefly on national issues, or should they also seek impact on regional and international affairs? Consider, for example, a NGO seeking influence over human rights problems caused by the “war on drugs.” To have impact, it must consider national, regional and international factors, staying informed and maintaining partnerships at all levels. This, in turn, will require new human resources, new expertise, and new ways of operating. 

This multiplicity of struggles, interlocutors and venues encourages organisations to constantly reinvent themselves and update their thinking and strategies. It also imposes challenges, including the difficulty of remaining faithful to the group’s original identity and mission, cultivating new expertise and resources, developing new partnerships, and combining short- and long-term action.

Centre of gravity

The concept of the “nation-state” is under attack due to transnational social movements, protests, and flows of all kinds. The greatest challenge comes from within, however, as domestic publics react to public institutions’ perceived inability to represent their views and effectively implement policies. Consider the legislative system, held hostage by the kind of party politics that many citizens abhor. The gap between state institutions’ promises and capabilities is wide, and growing.

This public disillusionment challenges civil society organisations in at least two ways. First, the public may regard NGOs with similar distrust. Second, human rights NGOs’ point of reference is under attack, leading to disorientation and confusion. After all, the central logic of human rights activism takes the state as its centre of gravity. More than anything else, human rights activists seek to influence what the state should, and should not, do. But if the public fundamentally distrusts the state, what are the implications for human rights organisations?

States remain responsible for guaranteeing human rights, and should thus remain a focus of human rights organisations. Still, many NGOs feel increasingly disoriented as the public questions state agencies’ ability and legitimacy to do their job. NGOs will have to develop new ways of working and influencing the state, and will also need to find ways of rebuilding citizen trust in public institutions and in the relevance of state-oriented human rights claims.

Non-institutional activism

Historically, many rights groups have sought to represent, give voice to, and act for, vulnerable people and under-represented groups. They have also tried to channel diffuse public demands and pressure institutions in a coordinated manner. The more individuals become central political actors, however, the more difficult it is for NGOs to play this role. If anyone can act or engage directly in attempts to bring about deep social transformation, who needs institutions, unified campaigns, and organised demands?

This leads to “non-institutional activism” in which a wide range of individuals simultaneously and ephemerally champion diverse causes. When they do happen, these actors’ alliances with established organisations are usually sporadic and issue-based, rather than on an NGOs’ totality of values and mission.

Digital activism and social media strengthens this phenomenon. On the one hand, they favour access to information and constantly tempt people to take political positions. On the other hand, they dilute the kind of long lasting, institutional connections necessary for long-term social transformation.


Flickr/United States Mission Geneva (Some rights reserved)

Writers, bloggers and journalists use social media, mobile communications and digital networks to promote human rights.

A difficult balance

Today’s civil society and human rights groups find themselves in a new world. At present, there is a tension between preserving what has already been achieved, and deconstructing, innovating, reinventing and transforming. But these forces need not necessarily be opposed. 

Human rights groups in the 21st century must be “solid” enough to persist and have impact, but “liquid” enough to adapt, take risks and seize new opportunities. This is a difficult balance, but it is likely the best way to guarantee rights for real human beings, made of flesh and bone.

This article draws on an earlier piece published in Sur: International Journal on Human Rights.


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