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The 'no grassroots' critique of human rights: fair or misleading?

The dichotomy set up between elite-driven and grassroots-driven human rights progress might be a false one. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movement?

I have just finished an imaginary debate inspired by good human rights research. This debate involves squaring the critical findings of James Ron, David Crow, and Shannon Golden’s “The struggle for a truly grassroots human rights movement” with the more sympathetic findings of my recently defended dissertation, The Impact of Human Rights Law in Time.

Using a wealth of impressive and unprecedented survey evidence from four countries in three regions, Ron et al. demonstrate that the language of human rights, and engagement with human rights organizations and activities, tends to be less common as one descends the socio-economic ladder. The conclusion one could draw from this is that “human rights,” writ large, are not the stuff of grassroots movements; instead, they tend to be an “elite-driven activity.”

In contrast, my work makes the argument that social movements, the development of human rights law and the increased protection of individuals often coincide over time. I make two essential points. First, using complex statistical models based on evidence from over 120 countries in the period 1974-2006, I show that human rights-based legal actions—including the criminal prosecution of rights-offending state agents—are associated with positive outcomes like lowered risk of civil war and the long-term decline of political repression.

The second point is that domestic governments commit and eventually comply with human rights law as a response to persistent demands made by dissenting constituencies pushing for change. One prime example is Chile. With a plebiscite on his government looming, Pinochet made overtures toward the country’s human rights movement, ratifying the Convention Against Torture on September 30, 1988. It was not enough. Five days later, he lost the vote 55% to 43%, ushering in a negotiated transition to democracy. Years later, human rights lawyers would later use the Convention Against Torture and other sources of law to pursue prosecution against Pinochet and his henchmen.

In short, human rights norms and laws have done some good over time, in part because they have been rooted in local political resistance. For more evidence, one needs to look no further than countries like South Korea, Northern Ireland or even Nigeria. How do I reconcile my findings, that human rights law and norms are backed by people power, with the findings of Ron et al., that human rights resonates little with publics in various countries?

One answer is that we are simply starting from different places. Their study presumes that human rights is a movement, and that the level of grass-rootedness is a way of judging the effectiveness of that movement in different contexts. My study starts at the other end. I look at various mass non-violent protest movements, and observe whether they commonly make reference to human rights in their appeals for change. I do not consider whether dissent comes from the ‘grassroots.’ Why?

First, the ‘grassroots’ are hard to observe with precision. For example, what percentage of the public must be mobilized for a social movement to be considered ‘grassroots’, and why does that matter for a movement’s success? One nagging issue I have with Ron et al.’s study is that we are left wondering what the ideal baseline amount of public participation for movement success is. Even if only 1% of the Mexican public participates in human rights activities, that is still over 1 million activists!

Second, I am not convinced that ‘grass-rootedness’ is the critical evaluative standard for movements. It’s true that people tend to hear about and participate in human rights claim-making more frequently the more educated or richer they are. I suspect, though, that a large elite-public divide exists in all social movements everywhere. We know from the literature on contentious politics that mobilization by the educated elite is necessary for the development of movements, and that some successful revolutions (like Bolshevism) started with very few actual members of the public. Therefore, the dichotomy set up between elite-driven and grassroots-driven human rights progress might be a false one.

In his comments on the article, Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch openly admits that mass mobilization is not, and should not be, the goal of transnational human rights organizations like the one he directs. Of course not. To be effective, mass mobilization must be initiated by respected local leaders. But by continuing to educate future movement leaders, as recent research shows, rights organizations can play a role in “aiding and abetting” non-violent protest and demonstration movements that put immense pressure on abusive regimes.

Still, there is no denying that Ron, Crow, and Golden are onto something here. Human rights activists must constantly be aware that their ideas are under threat of losing ground to conservative ideologies emphasizing security and fear, and that people might be more willing to hit the streets in support of religious fundamentalism or xenophobic nationalism.

That said, we should understand human rights not as an alternative to political or religious movements, but as an evolving and versatile framework of guidelines intended to control the means of political confrontation between ideological opponents. We should not expect human rights to define entirely people’s political identities. Instead, we should expect human rights norms and laws to be used by local constituencies to limit the lust for extremism and violence on the part of governments, their ardent supporters, and their primary opponents. Evidence shows that, over time, they do just that.  


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