Speaking with an elite accent: human rights and the "masses"

Does the human rights movement's effectiveness hinge upon the trust and diffuse support of ordinary citizens? Not necessarily. Well-crafted, elite-level strategies can help NGOs effectively promote progressive reform. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movementEspañol

Ezequiel González Ocantos
20 November 2013

Ron, Crow and Golden use survey data to suggest that human rights discourse is more established among elites than among those constituencies “who stand to benefit most from human rights norms,” and encourage human rights activists to rethink their outreach strategies. They assume that increased public support for NGOs and their work would both popularize human rights parlance and improve organized civil society’s political leverage worldwide.

But should we really worry about the moderate to low penetration of human rights language among the general public? Does the human rights movement’s effectiveness really hinge upon the trust and diffuse support of ordinary citizens, as argued by other participants in this debate over human rights as a “mass or elite movement?” Should grassroots mobilization really be a central goal of the human rights movement?

To talk about the “human rights movement” in general can be misleading. Human rights activists fight for a myriad of causes, including political and civil rights, social and economic rights, and cultural rights, and they do so on behalf of both excluded minorities and marginalized majorities. Moreover, within these different human rights movements there are grassroots organizations that try to make change “in the field,” along with more detached, global, and professional groups that promote change at an elite level. Although the two often work together (human rights lawyers and the victims of repression, for example, or environmental experts and the communities affected by pollution), calls for a more collaborative relationship are laudable.

My own concern, however, is with the portion of the movement that I know best, the Latin American network of human rights NGOs. As I see it, this movement is mainly focused on promoting institutional reforms that, for example, will strengthen the rule of law. To do this, Latin American activists and NGOs pressure governments to ratify human rights treaties; purge the armed forces of human rights criminals and collaborators; enact legal reforms to guarantee due process and due diligence; and increase the transparency of state agencies.

My view of how the movement operates is unavoidably biased by the questions I tackle as an academic, namely the causes of human rights prosecutions in Latin America. In my academic work, I argue that the recent surge in prosecutions against those responsible for crimes against humanity was made possible by the pedagogical interventions mounted by human rights NGOs, which taught judges and prosecutors how to use international human rights law in their rulings, and to apply complex theories of criminal liability to crimes perpetrated through intricate state-centered criminal enterprises.

My research suggests that by becoming the conveyor belts of international norms, Latin American lawyers and activists transformed positivist, parochial and formalist domestic legal cultures. Local Latin American courts were thus able to become agents of truth and justice, defying amnesty laws, statutes of limitations, and the paucity of direct incriminating evidence.

The human rights movement I study tends, therefore, to be elite-centered, technical, and highly professionalized. Although these activists may be moved by deeply ingrained values, passions, and life experiences and missions, their effectiveness is based upon their ability to engage in conversations with elite decision makers, state planners, and bureaucrats. The change they seek usually depends upon the actions of those who hold power. It is therefore not surprising that these NGOs tend to be staffed by extremely well trained individuals who belong to elite, transnational “epistemic communities”. This is the right profile to engage productively with domestic and international governmental decision makers.

One of the most vivid passages of the celebrated book on international human rights activism, Activists Beyond Borders, is its description of how human rights activists seeking to persuade the US government to put pressure on Latin American dictators began to succeed when they left their ponchos behind, and donned suits to move around the corridors of Congress. They engaged, in other words, in powerful, well-crafted, elite-level strategies.

In the many interviews I conducted with judges and prosecutors charged with human rights cases in Latin America, the issue of professionalism quickly came to the fore. An Argentinean judge, for example, attributed the effectiveness of some NGOs’ legal strategies to the fact that they “knew perfectly well that they needed to put their best legal talent to draft those briefs, and that they couldn’t just bring the victims to move us.” A Peruvian prosecutor was even more emphatic when explaining the highly technical nature of her job: “We need more and better training […] What do I do, for example, if after three decades the medical and psychological reports do not find evidence of torture?  What other kind of evidence can I look for?  How do I use it and what importance can I give to it?  We need help!” The answers to these questions cannot be supplied by grassroots mobilizations or by nurturing the “right kind” of public attitudes. Instead, they require the diffusion of information, knowledge and expertise. This diffusion, in turn, is most often achieved by those able to “speak in an elite accent.”

What about representativeness? How can NGO strategies, positions and demands be legitimate if they lack grounding in the mass public? Two points. First, although there are some organizations which seek to realize rights for a deprived majority (e.g. the “right to food” in India), it is highly unlikely that most human rights movements will ever become representative in the sense of becoming mass movements, partly because they often stand for the interests and needs of minorities. The question of representativeness misses the point, especially if one believes in the moral foundations of liberal democracy and the importance of including minorities and respecting their rights. NGOs do not have to be representative in the aforementioned sense in order to legitimize their activities.

Second, although human rights NGOs may speak with an elite accent, they do so to represent the voices of marginalized, repressed and excluded constituencies. The very fact that the language in which they speak may be distant from the general public is what allows them to effectively represent these groups in arenas where their needs are typically ignored. For example, 70% of the victims of Peru’s internal armed conflict did not, or do not, speak Spanish as a first language. The work of Spanish-speaking human rights lawyers, however, who belong to the middle and upper classes, is instrumental in making it possible for these individuals and their families to get their day in court.

My point is that the lack of penetration of human rights language into the mass public is not something that should alarm us. Efforts to popularize it might in fact reduce the ability of NGOs to enact change for those who need it most, as it might redirect activists’ efforts from the corridors of power to the streets. There, generating the conditions for effective social change requires a very different set of tools than the ones NGOs normally deploy.

Let me conclude with a word of optimism. It may be true that when asked about their exposure to terms such as “human rights,” survey respondents feel at a loss. This, however, may not be indicative of the lack of diffuse support for the values and causes human rights activists fight for every day. The human rights movement is probably the unknown soldier of the progressive agenda, spreading support for gay, indigenous, or women’s rights without getting the credit it deserves for changing the conversation and expanding the subjects of political debate.


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