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Reforming and transforming: a multi-directional investigation of human rights

Researchers must analyze both vertical relationships between human rights leaders and their base, as well as horizontal relations between the human rights movement and other actors. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movement? Español.

The Human Rights Perception Polls described by Ron, Crow and Golden suggest that human rights ideas, concepts, and connections are more common among elites than the masses, forcing readers to consider what, precisely, the global human rights movement and its political project should look like. The authors believe that the human rights movement is too elitist, and that a more mass-oriented, grassroots movement is needed.

The problems these authors describe are in fact common to any progressive political effort. Should we promote reform through existing institutions and elites, or should we seek a broader social transformation through popular empowerment and fundamental socio-political change?

Unfortunately, the survey focuses only on the vertical, top-to-bottom dimension of the global human rights movement. A more multi-directional analysis is in fact required, one that studies both vertical relations between human rights elites and the “masses", as well as horizontal relations between the human rights movement and other social forces.

More specifically, researchers must study the human rights movement’s ability - or lack thereof - to join forces with other progressive actors, including those dedicated to the environment, feminism, indigenous peoples, labor, and more. 

The Human Rights Perception team conducted their research in Mexico, Colombia, Morocco, and India, and their results confirm intuitions I have often had. I have always suspected that the human rights discourse was better known among the most educated elites, and less well known among society’s poorest, least educated, and minority populations. I have always feared, in other words, that human rights discourse resonates least among those who are also most likely to be victims of abuse. Moreover, progressive human rights policies have frequently oriented themselves towards achieving institutional reform rather than toward promoting the wholesale political empowerment of society’s most disadvantaged sectors.

My own social science research organization, FLACSO-Mexico, recently began a multidisciplinary effort to study the institutionalization of human rights norms in Mexico along with their actual impacts on the lives of ordinary citizens. We did this because our baseline surveys of existing research suggested that most Latin American human rights evaluations focused on institutional reform than on the population’s real ability to enjoy their rights in practice.

As Ron, Crow and Golden note, greater elite exposure to human rights ideas doesn’t necessarily imply greater acceptance, particularly in Mexico and Colombia. This, the authors suggest, is a wake-up call for the human rights movement, since elite advocacy may be less useful than human rights activism among society’s least privileged, where human rights workers could support grass roots groups struggling for social justice.

As a researcher concerned with human rights institutionalization, I applaud these new surveys. They address important gaps in the existing human rights research, which often assumes that society matters to human rights efforts, but provides little systematic information on how it does in practice.

These surveys, moreover, push us to think more seriously about ways of making elites more receptive to human rights ideas, and of expanding their resonance among society’s disadvantaged. They also oblige us to think more seriously about how human rights discourse and action can - or cannot - transform existing power relations. 

Unfortunately, however, the surveys do not examine the ways in which human rights concerns are mediated and conveyed to ordinary people in specific contexts.

Consider Mexico, where I currently lived and work. Here, traditional channels of political representation function quite poorly. Political and social transformation therefore requires alliances between progressive politicians and victims of human rights violations. Today, Mexican human rights groups are performing this crucial mediating role more than ever before.  

Take the Mexican movement against feminicide, which many describe as a human rights issue, which has spread throughout the region. At first the movement began with meetings and discussion between the victims’ families - especially mothers of the young women murdered in Ciudad Juarez, the violence-prone city situated along Mexico’s northern border – and feminist groups. These discussions began in Ciudad Juarez, and then moved to the country as whole.

Later, both feminists and human rights workers began framing the killing as a gender violence and human rights problem. This connection between victims, feminists and human rights activists helped spread the issue to other parts of the country and region, and ultimately pushed governments - through alliances with political elites - to change public policy.

The Human Rights Perception Polls, which asked ordinary people how often they encountered human rights terms, organizations, and actors in their daily lives, could not examine these complex linkages. As such, its findings present only a partial snapshot of a complex reality.

The polls also failed to consider the human rights movement’s 'horizontal' relations with other movements and organizations. And yet human rights resonance must also be measured from side to side, and not just from top to bottom.

Consider again Mexico’s anti-feminicide movement, where the National Observatory on Feminicide (Observatorio Nacional sobre Feminicidio) brings together over 40 different organizations. Together, victims’ families, feminist groups and human rights organizations have effectively monitored public policies and raised public consciousness. The Mexican feminist movement and human rights groups helped bring this about by linking these disparate groups together and by helping to form a common alliance on this vital issue.

The human rights movement, in other words, engages in multiple strategies simultaneously, working in different directions. It helps link the top with the bottom, while also linking one side to another. It mediates between different actors and levels, creating progressive synergies that might otherwise not exist.

To understand how this works, however, we must engage in a multi-directional analysis that is closely attuned to the different ways human rights ideas move in, through, and between societies.

Yes, it is important to study how human rights elites interact and resonate with ordinary people. It is also vitally important, however, to learn how the human rights movement relates with other social and political actors, including supporters, potential supporters, and perhaps even enemies.

These issues are hard to address in survey format, but they are nonetheless vitally important. Hopefully, future iterations of the Human Rights Perception project will take these concerns into account. 


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