Human rights missing from social justice activism


Whether human rights will help us get social justice is on the minds of activists. But is it on the agendas of human rights institutions?  Español 

Sara Burke
30 September 2015

In recent years the world has been shaken by protests demanding real democracy and justice for socioeconomic grievances. Research (in which I was involved) shows that between 2006-2013—and encompassing a wide spectrum of governments—protests against antisocial economic policies and for meaningful democracy topped the findings (See Figure 1). These protests came in many forms: the violent (riots for safe and affordable food, water and fuel), the traditional (campaigns to reform public services and pensions, create good jobs and better labour conditions, enact progressive taxation and fiscal spending, undertake land reform), and the innovative (mass occupations of civic spaces demanding regime change and the elimination of inequality).

Figure 1: Grievances and demands driving world protests, 2006-2013


Source: Author’s own graph of data from the 2014 research and update to data set conducted by Burke S., M. Berrada, V. Rubio, Y. Cai, A. Heisig, originally compiled by Ortiz, I., S. Burke, M. Berrada & H. Cortes (2013) as analysed in ‘World Protests 2006-2013’, Initiative for Policy Dialogue and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung New York.

While a number of protests framed grievances as at least partly rights-based, the majority have not pursued their aims in terms of human rights mechanisms. Instead, they have used direct demands in the streets and on the Internet. In addition to numerous practical demands on the economic system, many of these protests also voice overarching grievances against that very system, and in particular its production and reproduction of debt and inequality.

In spite of the principle that all human rights are indivisible and interdependent, the human rights field does not have a unified approach. Despite the fact that human rights and social justice have similar goals, there are numerous problems with framing the link between them as causal, implying that human rights is a language, or mechanism, for achieving social justice. First of all, in spite of the principle that all human rights are indivisible and interdependent, the human rights field does not have a unified approach. Progress in civil and political rights, the so-called “first-generation” human rights, such as rights to assembly, speech and religion, is based upon monitoring the presence or absence of negative outcomes like wrongful incarceration and censorship. Second-generation rights are seen in the dominant framework as following the first and being realized progressively, over time.

The historical roots of this division lie in the Cold War. The US promoted as human rights the very political rights enshrined in the US constitution and supported by liberal democracy, whereas the Soviet Union promoted social and economic rights central to a socialist organization of society. The historical disagreement over the relationship between rights and justice is reflected today in the contradictory perspectives on social and economic institutions held by activists for human rights and social justice on the one hand—let’s call them participatistas—and institutional representatives of human rights bodies and organizations—institutionalists—on the other.

Unlike institutionalists, participatistas value the “expertise” of life-experience over technical mastery. This gives them greater legitimacy to voice the grievances and aspirations of social movements than institutional representatives, who are unable to account for the historical lack of progress in achieving universal human rights. While participatistas do sometimes petition nation states and intergovernmental bodies, they also embrace direct action within and across borders to attain social justice. Recent examples include the Summer of Rights in Brazil (2013), Istanbul’s Right to the City movement around Gezi Park in Turkey (2013), the Pro-Democracy movement in Hong Kong (2014), and Black Lives Matter, opposing structural violence against black men in the United States (2014-15). Influential human rights groups walk a fine line with regard to their “street credibility” among such activists.


Flickr/Pasu Au Yeung (Some rights reserved)

Protesters call for democracy during Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution.

Rights + riots: toward synergy?

In November 2014, I organized a workshop with strategists from social and political movements, social and political scientists in academia, and government representatives and their advisers on internal and external conflicts and democratic dialogue. All were invited because of their work on protests or protest movements. The idea we wrestled with is best summed up in the following question: “Is this phenomenon in the streets a protest to express aspirations, grievances and demands, or is it conflict to be managed or subdued?” The framework for institutions presupposed external agents—experts—who managed episodes of protest in order to achieve a state of security and stability. The case for protesters, and those of us in the meeting with one foot in an institution and one in the streets, was different. We discussed how protesters act as “experts” on their own behalf and for the transformation of their own reality, even in the case of riots and violent protests, which can be understood as expressions of injustice and demands for its reversal.

For example, research presented around food riots in Asia showed that, while demands expressed in the heat of a food riot may not be sophisticated or articulate, they nevertheless communicate the grievance well enough to get action from governments. This was a surprising outcome: sometimes riots work. But if rioting is seen as a way to hold governments accountable for a morally charged issue like hunger and food security, what role do, can, and should human rights play?

A new agenda for human rights institutions?

Since the economic crisis of 2007-2008, social movements have significantly shifted the discourse on social justice issues: consider the effect the Occupy movement had on the public discussion of inequality. Better synergy between the institutions of human rights and activists would require a deeper shift of discourse, something able to be translated into new institutional designs. According to sociologist Patrick Heller, who also participated in the workshop on protest and conflict, this is what European social democracy forged during decades of working-class mobilization, war and revolutionary moments, resulting in an institutionalized but fairly effective welfare state.

Clearly the present situation—especially for developing countries—does not mirror the historical/political setting of Europe in this era of worker-led struggles. But Heller offered a view of how such collaboration might look via the experience of the Sanitaristas, a contentious, grassroots movement of doctors and nurses in Brazil who set out to penetrate state institutions in order to solve the seemingly intractable problem of health care delivery in their country. Through their participatory process and militancy, they were able to establish universal primary health care, a goal that still eludes the US. This is where the human rights movement can play a critical role in helping movements to achieve social justice in everyday life: by challenging the global human rights regime, especially big NGOs and the intergovernmental bodies for human rights, to attune their agendas to the issues from the streets. Institutional change will require a new era, beyond representation for those whose rights are denied, and toward the creation of more democratic platforms, in which people and communities speak for themselves.

This is a shorter version of an article that first appeared in Can human rights bring social justice?, published by the Strategic Studies project at Amnesty International, Netherlands.


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