Making human rights matter to the marginalised

Human rights organizations must adopt a new approach to produce positive change for - and stay relevant to - those who need advocacy the most. A way forward to make human rights a truly grassroots movement. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movement?

Nicola Browne Dessie Donnelly
12 August 2013

Hadas Ziv states that human rights workers and organisations have become divorced from the people who need those rights the most. This is an understandable conclusion, but one which fails to examine many instances where human rights concepts, institutions and organisations have been appropriately placed at the service of those in most need. There is important learning within these examples, which those working for change must examine.

It is ironic that while human rights are widely accepted as ‘universal’ and particularly concerned with those most marginalised in society, they rarely seem relevant to those very people. An oft-repeated story within our own organisation (Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), based in Belfast, Northern Ireland) is of a woman from a neglected council estate in North Dublin, first hearing about having ‘inalienable rights’ and exclaiming “Well, that’s the best kept-secret in the world!" 

This woman, and others working with PPR since 2006, would come to learn that knowing the terminology of rights and citing them to those in power is not sufficient to produce positive change. Rather, new strategies and tactics are required:

Both the potential and limitation of traditional advocacy have been described by previous contributors. But as Ignacio Saiz and Alicia Ely Yamin allude to, a new kind of human rights work is emerging which moves beyond a traditional advocacy approach. From PPR’s experience as an NGO providing organizational, developmental, policy, and campaigning support to marginalized groups to realize their socio-economic rights, here are some of the key requirements.

1) Generating meaningful and effective participation of the most vulnerable is necessary to both win and sustain positive change over time. This is hard, resource intensive work, and requires a myriad of innovative organizing and developmental approaches. Academics talking about human rights per se to women struggling to bring up children in poor housing will not inspire them to challenge these conditions. However, letting these women speak about their experiences, and working with them to devise strategies to use human rights tools in the service of their issues, both creates new possibilities for change and inspires hope. 

This is not only the right thing to do; it is the effective thing to do. Within these daily experiences of humiliation, you will find simple, low cost solutions that could result in the fulfillment of a right previously denied. Furthermore, the meaningful participation of rights-holders is a necessary accountability mechanism in itself. The rights-holders themselves know if the promises for change are fulfilled, because they will either see it in their daily experience or they will not. Implementation of these promises becomes the priority, not simply the securing of policy or legislative commitments.

2) This work requires a different staff structure from that of traditional human rights organisations. It needs organizers capable of inspiring, skilling and mentoring people; policy workers who focus on ‘demystifying’ human rights principles, so they can be grasped and used by the directly impacted; and a management system which allows strategic and operational priorities to emerge from the ground up, not the top down. The focus is not on being the voice of the poor; rather it is on enabling them to speak for themselves.

3)   A human rights-based approach must take power relationships into account. This includes the inter-relationships between the three spheres of the marginalized, the organization(s) working with them, and the state. Time must be given at all stages of human rights work to take into account the power that a state has over the most vulnerable, and work out what human rights tools they can employ to build their power. Often a human rights organisation may not discern a power relationship between them and the government, as often their personnel will be drawn from similar educational backgrounds and social strata. But it exists, and must be recognised to allow for successful strategy building to deal with it.

Human rights will not be seen as relevant if they are not producing change in small spaces. When human rights are used to shine a light on the daily lives of people experiencing humiliation, as is happening in many places throughout the globe, they are rightly valued as tools for the assertion of human dignity.


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