Earlier on openGlobalRights, Emilie Hafner-Burton showed that human rights laws do not necessarily, or even often, translate into actual human rights protections. In addition, James Ron and colleagues showed that human rights language and activities are more prominent among elites than ordinary people.
These findings challenge human rights activists such as myself. The rules, principles, and laws we hold dear are proliferating in Morocco, but the results are still disappointing. Elites are having one experience with rights, while ordinary citizens have another.
Elites tend to view human rights as universal standards, legal provisions, bureaucratic mechanisms, and administrative procedures. Ordinary people, by contrast, view human rights as interesting only if they lead to the actual enjoyment of those rights. If human rights standards are not part of the public’s lived experience, why should elites continue to invoke human rights ideas?
This is more than just a theoretical debate. It matters, for example, when elites and the masses assess trial proceedings differently. Those directly affected by the case–the public–expect a fair settlement and protection against arbitrary measures. Trial observers–the elite–are chiefly interested in the court’s compliance with established legal procedures. These perspectives are not identical.
Consider also the right to participate in “unauthorized” demonstrations. The court rules on the legality of these events; academics examine whether protesters violate the rules of peaceful protest; and human rights activists see participants as “rights-holders” spontaneously exercising their internationally recognized right of assembly. The protestors themselves, however, care most about whether their demands are actually met.
Importantly, governments can respect citizens’ right to freely assemble and protest even while refusing to meet protestors’ demands. This, in turn, can be a victory for human rights-inclined elites while being a defeat for ordinary people.
Two recent studies apply this idea to Morocco. The first, by the Institute of International Studies (IRIS), notes that while Moroccan civil society has successfully organized many public protests, it has yet to provide real solutions. The only real achievements noted are the revised Moroccan family code, which regulates marriage and the rights of children and inheritance, and Morocco’s 2011 constitutional reform, which improved rules regarding state respect for social justice.
Zacarias Garcia/Demotix (All rights reserved)
Young Moroccans demand constitutional reform and true Democracy in Rabat, Morocco on February 21, 2011.
A second study, published by the Moroccan Alternative Forum in Rabat, confirms that Moroccans have indeed become far more prone to demonstrate. The annual number of demonstrations rose from 700 in 2005 to 17,000 in 2012, and the daily tally rose from two to 52.
Moroccan trade unions led 40% of these protests, while unemployed university graduates led 33%. Together, their demands focused on employment, housing, and marginalization. Political protestors accounted for only 5% of the total, while protests about physical insecurity accounted for only 3%. Most of Morocco’s recent demonstrations, in other words, have focused squarely on bread-and-butter issues.
Moreover, the Rabat study shows that after a period of fewer restrictions, as during the Arab Spring, the decision of the public authorities to comply with the right to protest actually elicited negative reactions from the rest of the population. This eventually led to an increase in protests, with the two opposing parties demonstrating against the other side’s demonstrations.
These protests represent a new platform for activists in Morocco, creating political debate and attracting media attention. As a result, Moroccan authorities no longer have a monopoly on the dissemination of information, leading to an increased number of people who no longer accept a situation of marginalization previously seen as "natural" or “normal.”
What should elites do?
How should Morocco’s human rights-inclined elites respond to these protests? Are they an integral part of the human rights movement, or are they just outside observers? And if they are full members, how can they best reduce the gap between themselves and ordinary people?
Arguably, a key role for human rights-inclined intellectuals is to help establish laws, rules, and expected behaviour for both citizens and governments. Then, they must help ensure that the right tools exist for disseminating these ideas, so that the public can move beyond the simple act of protest.
Yet elites should also be concerned about protests’ limited results; it is not enough simply to encourage mobilization. The lack of elite support for Morocco’s protestors is, arguably, one major reason for their inability to achieve real results. The channel for negotiation with authorities is often totally absent from protestors’ strategies, and working to open these channels is where elites can play a much stronger role.
Second, all members of the human rights movement, elites included, must be 100% committed to the protection of vulnerable people, whatever their identity, political views, ethnicity, colour of skin, language, or social class. This should go without saying, but again, perspective is everything. If the masses feel that law-creating elites are interested only in protecting specific types of people, they will become even more disaffected.
Protests are important in that they help people move out of their traditional environments, such as the family, and participate in public action. They create new social environments for individuals to speak out for themselves, as well as for the group. Yet, even though Moroccans increasingly enjoy the right to demonstrate, their protests are not helping to solve their most urgent problems.
To believe in the power of human rights, Moroccans must see concrete results: protection from physical harm and actual opportunities for a decent, dignified life. When the masses see human rights actually working, only then will they begin to have real confidence in human rights principles.