A global human rights movement?

As a rallying call human rights remain somewhat cold and ethereal - ‘Scandinavian religion’ as Debray puts it, mockingly. Is it any wonder, therefore, that their appeal still remains limited to global elites? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movement?

Peter Brett
17 July 2013

Ron, Crow and Golden show how global human rights activism appeals more to the rich than the poor, and then ask for ‘new and better mobilisation strategies’ to remedy the situation. This response picks up where they leave off.

As Jack Snyder points out, the oppressed often embrace universal causes for specific and local reasons: ‘the Christians say I don’t have to bind my feet. Hallelujah!’. Mobilisers have often been slow to understand this. In 1960 Regis Debray arrived at the École Normale Supérieure to be initiated into International Marxism by its ‘high priest’, Louis Althusser. (‘I’ve taken to Marxism because of its Catholicism’, Althusser apparently declared.) In 1965 Debray was summoned to Cuba, but was then captured in Bolivia with Che Guevara two years later.

Looking back on this period what struck Debray, above all, was Marxism’s lack of appeal. It was ‘songs of struggle’, charismatic leadership, and a whole panoply of revolutionary symbolism - rooted in local histories and concerns - that mobilised the masses. Human rights, by contrast, as Sam Moyn points out in a comment on Ron, Crow and Golden, ‘have not succeeded in offering the world breviaries, flags, or anthems’. As a rallying call they remain somewhat cold, and ethereal - ‘Scandinavian religion’ as Debray puts it, mockingly. Is it any wonder, therefore, that their appeal still remains limited to global elites?

Dezrobirea Muncitorilor

Wikimedia/Tantal. Public domain.

The key to ‘new and better mobilisation’, then, is the development of universally-appealing symbolic language, adaptable to local circumstance. Stephen Hopgood doubts we will see this any time soon. In his view Amnesty International once had mobilising symbols - deeply rooted in Northern European Protestant culture - but these are now unsuited for a globalised movement. There is of course a ‘New York-Geneva-London-centered ideology’ he calls ‘Human Rights’, with its own institutions and heros (the ICC, Kofi Annan etc.), but this has no resonance beyond the global 1%.

In the quest for better strategies, there are I think two conclusions one might draw from this. One would be to embrace the lack of any universal language, and seek to support any group that appears to share your objectives - however they describe what they are doing. This means ‘going with the grain’, in development parlance. It is a human rights strategy more than a human rights movement. The upside is that activists and donors would be encouraged to enhance, rather than co-opt and transform, already successful local forms of mobilisation - be they religious, civic or whatever. The downside, which Hadas Ziv identifies in a comment on her own piece, is that constant vigilance would be required, ‘I must always check and re-check if the partners I choose are true to my values. The minute they are not, and they become abusers, well - end of partnership’.  Human loyalties, however, inevitably form across political divides. This is a delicate business.

A second path would be to identify a ‘thinner’, more globally relevant human rights language. Mobilisers should not be too worried if it takes on different forms in different local contexts. They should see it as simply a welcome instance of what Sally Engle Merry calls ‘vernacularisation’. This term is helpful because it points back explicitly to missionaries' discussions of similar questions in the early twentieth century. (I believe, and not for religious reasons, that these parallels deserve serious consideration). For new ‘ecumenical’ approaches the main challenge was to identify when broadening the global Church risked advocating non-Christian causes. How could they tell whether it was really Christianity (or really human rights) that had 'vernacularised'? As Snyder points out, the dangers for this today are very real. Bolivian police and slum dwellers claim, for instance, that it is their 'human right' to lynch criminals, whilst police in Delhi apparently believe that torturing criminals protects the human rights of the victims.

These are tough but important choices, with upsides and downsides to each. To avoid them, however, we must hope that there really is something - perhaps hidden for now but inside everyone - that we can call belief in human rights (see Keepers of the Flame, p.207). Mobilisation, on this view, would be just a case of finding that thing; maybe an eternal soul, or a Candle in the Wind. But this, in authentically Christian terms, would be the triumph of hope over experience.


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