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Internationalizing the human rights movement: creating a North-South bridge?

As Human Rights Watch places more full-time staff in the global South, domestic rights groups in these regions are raising concerns about donor competition and pretensions of northern leadership. Can we move beyond old dichotomies and focus on common goals to draw all areas of the human rights network together? From the openGlobalRights debate, Human rights: mass or elite movementEspañolالعربية

Iain Levine
1 April 2014

In recent years, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has pursued an internationalization strategy that involves placing more full-time staff in the countries and regions where we work. The strategy also envisions developing an advocacy capacity and presence in Brazil and South Africa in particular, recognizing the growing ability of these countries to influence human rights around the world. In addition, we are seeking more coverage from media outlets in the global South. Our colleagues at Amnesty International are pursuing a similar approach.    

Inevitably, such an initiative, while welcomed by many as a move towards a more genuinely international human rights movement, raises concerns among others. Last year on openGlobalRights, Stanely Ibe cautioned northern-based organizations against expanding southwards with pretensions of leadership. Southern groups are often frank in that they consider our appearance both a plus, since it reinforces local activism and capacity, and a minus since they fear that we might monopolize both media and political attention, as well as donor support.

We recognize these fears and seek to be sensitive to them. We believe that our presence – and that of other international groups – can and must strengthen the local human rights response and that by collaborating well with local actors, we can help attract more attention and more funding support, which will help benefit all.

In a recent article debunking the myth that “elite advocacy” and mass mobilization are somehow in contradiction, Steve Crawshaw of Amnesty International wrote that we also have to get away from unhelpful dichotomies of international/national or North/South. Such arguments distract from the priority of identifying points of synergy and play into the hands of those governments and other negative forces that want to undermine human rights by challenging their very universality. The future of human rights activism lies in networks, coalitions and partnerships – north to south, south to south, across methodologies and ways of working and different areas of human rights – LGBT, women’s rights, disability rights, and so on.

Every day, my HRW colleagues are engaging with, listening to, learning from, collaborating with and supporting local and regional activists. In the best-case scenario, we reinforce each other’s work. It’s not about seeking a leadership role. We know that HRW benefits from the depth of knowledge, contextual understanding, credibility, legitimacy, and first-hand experience of local NGOs. We know that they can help us work out where we have greater value-added – and that our work can only be stronger with their input.

For their part, national NGOs can gain from experiences that international NGOs bring from their work in other parts of the world. They can also benefit from the platform and exposure that international NGOs bring in terms of opening doors to high-level policy makers, galvanizing broader press attention, helping local NGOs navigate international mechanisms and, ultimately, placing more pressure for change on abusive governments. And in countries and situations where attacks on human rights defenders make activism dangerous – a growing phenomenon according to recent reports – there will be times when international NGOs play an indispensable role in helping to create a more protective environment for local activists.

The network of international, regional and national NGOs that works together around the UN Human Rights Council – HRC Net – is a good example of positive synergy at the international level. The network helps to ensure a greater diversity of NGO voices at the Human Rights Council, notably by increasing the involvement of regional and national NGOs, in particular from Africa, Asia and Latin America, in its proceedings. This helps to challenge the notion that human rights are western-centered. As one southern NGO representative said, “I don’t think we could be effective in the Council any other way…. The HRC Net is a really good example of HRW being a strong member of a network and producing benefits for HRW as well as for the other members.”

At the regional level, African NGOs have worked closely with HRW and other international groups to maintain pressure for international justice and accountability in support of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Together, these various groups argue that justice for crimes against African victims is vital, as so many African governments push back against the ICC and international mechanisms of justice.  

At the country level, our website is full of joint letters and press releases that we have written and released together with national as well as other international NGOs on country-specific issues, as well as thematic concerns such as child marriage and migrant workers. In some cases, such collaborations can be complex and require great nuance so that the aims and concerns of all signatories are met.

In any number of countries, working on LGBT issues can provide a measure of protection for beleaguered groups and activists vulnerable to violence from the state as well as from others in society. Yet, in contexts where political leaders seek to justify their hatred and discriminatory actions by referring to homosexuality as a “foreign perversion,” having a UK or US-based NGO leading protests against state action might well be counter-productive. In these circumstances, we have to be constantly engaged with local activists to work out the most effective role that we can play at any given time.

Sometimes, the scale and gravity of a human rights crisis leads to a breakdown of civil society, making it hard to find viable and credible national partners. Our work on Central African Republic has focused on mobilizing an international response to widespread atrocities and massive humanitarian need but, thus far, it has not had a national component – despite the extraordinarily courageous activism of religious leaders in the country. In time, we hope that strong local partners will emerge to help provide national leadership for human rights values.

Though our staff often take time to share their experiences and expertise with local partners and sometimes carry out more formal training programs, HRW is not a capacity-building organization. But within our basic methodology of research, advocacy and communications work, we look to share knowledge and support local activists. As international groups like HRW move closer to the ground, there is much that they can and must learn to do better in their engagements with national groups: from giving more explicit recognition to partnerships; to strengthening communication, coordination, and consultation with local human rights groups; to allocating more time to collaboration and prioritizing joint activities with local partners. At HRW we do take those recommendations seriously. We know that we are sometimes perceived as arrogant and impatient. We can certainly do more to divert the media and political spotlight to domestic groups to ensure that their contributions and impact are recognized internationally. We also need to display more sensitivity to anxieties about competition for funding.

I recently sent a news release from Human Rights Watch about the enforced disappearance and killing of two activists by the Angolan government to a Mozambican journalist. Her reply: “Thanks. But I don’t understand why attention is not given to these issues when local activists complain. It’s only news when HRW talks about it.” Her response is sadly right. However, the answer is not for international human rights groups to stop talking about the killing of activists in Angola – or elsewhere around the world. It is to ensure that the expansion of international NGO activity both raises the profile of such issues and facilitates and bolsters local activism. When all sides truly embrace this collaboration, old dichotomies will fade and new strengths in the human rights movement will start to emerge.

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