Neither elites nor masses: protecting human rights in the real world

The diversity of human rights movements defies elite/mass labels. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movementEspañol.

Janice Gallagher
17 December 2013

Over the past few months, openGlobalRights authors have discussed the pros and cons of elite or mass mobilization for human rights. Some argue the human rights movement is elite-led, and think that’s OK. Others claim the movement isn’t sufficiently grassroots, and are concerned that ordinary people don’t have sufficient knowledge of human rights language, activists, and organizations.

Based on my own experiences as a researcher and activist in Mexico and Colombia, I endorse the notion of a third, “multi-directional” option. In the real world, human rights movements are neither “elite-led” nor “mass-based”; they are a combination of both. They are composed of dense networks of global NGOs working together (and sometimes at odds) with local NGOs and grass-roots citizen and victim movements.

These real-world human rights networks cut across social class and geography, bringing disparate groups and individuals together to address common goals. The movements I study in Colombia and Mexico began by addressing the urgent concerns of real people under imminent threat.

Sometimes, these movements use the abstract language of “rights,” but more often, they do not. This matters little, however. Instead, what’s important is that these movements effectively address real problems, faced by real people, with all the non-violent tools at their disposal. 

Consider this example. In 2008, 17 mothers of missing young men  joined together in a group they called Las Madres de Soacha, the Mothers from Soacha, a poor city just south of Bogotá, Colombia. They eventually joined forces with local and international NGOs, including several foundations and human rights lawyers organizations, Colombia’s Victims’ Movement (MOVICE), the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo from Argentina, and Amnesty International. Over time, this network presented irrefutable evidence to the Colombian press, legal system and citizens that the Colombian army had kidnapped young men from the poor neighborhoods of Bogota, dressed them up as guerrillas, and murdered them.

The Colombian soldiers did this, it seems, so as to be able to count these young men as “battle kills,” and thus reap rewards from their superiors. This came to be known as Colombia’s “false positives” scandal, and it generated popular outrage across the country. Over time, it had significant political and legal ramifications: the head of the army, 11 colonels, and 16 other military personnel were forced to resign; investigations were opened into more than 3,500 cases of extrajudicial killings, over 80 percent of which may be “false positives” cases; and though most of the Madres’ cases are still pending, 14 soldiers have already been sentenced to 35-52 years in prison.  

By any meaningful measure, the “false positives” scandal promoted awareness of, and respect for, human rights in Colombia. Popular opinion eventually compelled the Colombian government to dismiss the army’s leadership, and the public learned details about an abusive government practice. The people and human rights groups involved in the effort, moreover, gained substantial public legitimacy.

Would the Human Rights Perceptions Poll discussed earlier on openGlobalRights have noted these developments? After all, that survey asked ordinary people in Colombia and elsewhere how often they heard the words, “human rights,” and whether or not they had ever come into contact with human rights organizations or activists.

As a result of the “false positives” scandal, it is likely that more Colombians were indeed exposed to the term, “human rights.” Very few, however, would have met a human rights activist or organization. That matters rather little, however. What’s important is that a network of international and Colombian NGOs, driven by the sorrow and outrage of victims’ mothers, worked with multiple actors, through multiple mechanisms, to spread its message of state legal and political accountability. 

Still, the Human Rights Perception Poll’s basic questions are important: should human rights terms, activists and groups enjoy popular support, and if so, why?

My research suggests that organized citizen actions – including protests, media campaigns, meetings with state investigators, litigation, and advocacy - are vital. These actions matter because they help activate and make relevant basic human rights that the state would much rather ignore. Importantly, these actions are neither “mass” nor “elite-led.” Instead, a diverse network of NGOs, movements and citizens carries them out, effectively defying the mass/elite distinction.

To be sure, legal experts often use elite-devised institutional reforms to prosecute human rights abusers. Yet these reforms were almost always enacted due to popular outrage over scandals and grave human rights abuses. Without this citizen support, the reforms would never have come into being. 

More importantly, perhaps, these laws, no matter how well meaning, must be continually activated, and re-activated, by the human rights networks. Left to their own devices, and without this pressure from above, below, and the side, few states would bother to apply their progressive laws in practice.

Consider the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which in 2007 and 2008 became the first Mexican state to implement a series of important judicial reforms. These reforms, lauded by elite human rights organizations and US funders, began the process of shifting the state’s legal system from an inquisitorial to an adversarial system. This, the reformers believed, would help make Chihuahua’s prosecutors, judges, and attorneys more accountable to the population at large and lead to improvements in the rule of law and human rights.

Five years later, the state’s counter-reforms have nullified most positive changes. Chihuahua remains horrifically violent, and impunity is still the norm. In those few legal cases that have been successfully prosecuted, local human rights groups, working in close collaboration with international NGOs and United Nations allies, have played a central role by participating in criminal investigations and prosecutions.

There are other problems with elite-led reforms and organizations. NGOs staffed by legal elites tend to have clearly defined missions, strategic plans, and “deliverables,” so that they can satisfy their donors. All too often, however, this kind of professionalism prevents such groups from responding to urgent human rights conditions outside their mandate.

Consider again Mexico, where drug and criminal-related violence from 2006 to 2012 includes over 70,000 murders and more than 25,000 disappeared. Some of the people guilty of these murders and disappearances are linked to the Mexican state; others are not. There is little clear information, however, and confusion reigns supreme.

Given this lack of clarity, most established Mexican rights groups have done little to address the crisis. These groups were created to protest crimes committed by the state, but now that the identity of many abusers is unclear, they find themselves unable to respond. They do not mobilize large numbers of citizens, and do not take on “messy” cases of murders and disappearances when the state is not clearly responsible, and that are hard, if not impossible, to win.

And yet, these elite NGOs nonetheless occupy much of the available political space, receive most available international funds, and set Mexico’s human rights agenda. To promote human rights, civil society must push state officials to respect and enforce their laws. Today, diverse, cross-class and complex networks of actors are doing this important work, strengthening the rule of law through multiple mechanisms and discourses.

Sometimes, these networks use the words, “human rights,” and sometimes, they self-define as “human rights workers.” More often than not, however, they use other words, as is only natural. What is important is that they leverage public opinion and exert effective pressure where it matters.

We must recognize all network actors, and see them as equal players in the struggle for human rights.


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