Who defines “human rights”? This vibrant debate has found a new home: openGlobalRights, a multi-lingual initiative supported by the Ford Foundation, the University of Minnesota, and the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. openGlobalRights offers a broad forum for “challenging discussions about the future of global human rights.”
The site will address four themes over the next year: emerging powers, global funding patterns, relationships and tension between religion and rights, and the role of international law. OpenGlobalRights aims “to encourage a high quality debate across global cleavages of all kinds, including the north/south divide.”
IHRFG’s New York conference in July 2013 took a tough look at many of these themes, with sessions exploring the human rights “brand” and the shifting roles of international and grassroots organizations. Several of our panelists have weighed in on openGlobal Rights; excerpts from their views, as well as those of other experts, are below.
There is a deep divergence between the concept of human rights shared by elites, largely until now located in the west (what we might call Human Rights), and what those rights mean for the vast majority of the world’s population (what we might call human rights). Human Rights are a New York-Geneva-London-centered ideology focused on international law, criminal justice, and institutions of global governance. Human Rights are a product of the 1%.
The rest of the world, the 99%, sees human rights activism as one among many mechanisms to bring about meaningful social change. By their nature, lower-case human rights are malleable, adaptable, pragmatic and diverse – they are bottom-up democratic norms, rather than top-down authoritative rules.
Human rights, in my understanding of the concept, are a series of limits on the exercise of power. The state and those holding the power of states are forbidden to interfere with freedom of inquiry or expression. They may not deprive anyone of liberty arbitrarily. They are prohibited from denying each person the right to count equally and to obtain the equal protection of the laws. They are denied the power to inflict cruelty. And they must respect a zone of privacy.
Social justice, on the other hand, is about the distribution, or redistribution of wealth and resources. It is often the case that those resisting social justice movements engage in abuses of human rights. Unfortunately, it is also frequently the case that partisans of social justice violate human rights when they have the power to do so.
Achieving social justice often involves the exercise of power and not merely placing restraints on power. In the past century, both opponents and proponents of social justice have committed serious human rights violations against hundreds of millions of persons. I believe that an organization such as Human Rights Watch should call attention to abuses of human rights whenever and wherever they are committed either by opponents or proponents of social justice, as has been the case since the organization’s founding. Recasting itself as a social justice organization would contradict this essential role.
And it is true that social justice is about the distribution or redistribution of wealth and resources, as Neier points out, but it is also about the distribution and redistribution of power, and in this social justice is no different than civil and political rights, those so-called ‘core’ human rights issues.
The idea that civil and political rights are the true (‘core’) human rights – Neier refers by way of example to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom of expression, equality before the law, the prohibition of cruel treatment or punishment, the right to privacy – is an idea that has been superseded by developments in theory, law and practice. Human rights – civil and political and economic and social – work synergistically. The political failures epitomized by the lack of financial oversight that led to the crisis gave rise to social and economic harms of the gravest of sort.
The success of the language of human rights is such that it has been adopted by grassroots communities, social movements, networks of online activists, religious and professional organizations, research centers and many other actors that collaborate with each other. Instead of imposing on them a simplistic dichotomy (the elites vs. the grassroots) or a broad definition of “our mission,” what we need are useful concepts and strategies for a movement that is much more varied and dynamic than the one of past decades.…
An equally open and pluralistic approach is needed with regards to the strategies of the movement. For this we must avoid the either-or logic that proposes to get rid of traditional strategies and replace them with mass mobilizations (Hopgood) or to maintain the former and bypass the latter (Neier).
What is needed are coalitions and collaborations that combine 1) careful documentation and “naming and shaming” Amnesty and HRW style, 2) the presence on the ground and the legitimacy that only local NGOs can have, and 3) mass mobilizations, both real and virtual. This is what is happening in the most successful cases, from the recent campaign for labor rights in Bangladesh to the litigation and mobilization in favor of the people of Sarayaku, which have involved the labor and indigenous movements, national and international NGOs, and virtual activist networks like Avaaz.
Is the realm of inter-state relations the place to assess the progress of the global human rights movement? In developed democracies, it is commonly accepted that national actors are most critical in realizing human rights, even if the international human rights system, including the scrutiny of foreign NGOs and peer countries, has a supporting role. …
Of course, it cannot hurt the cause of human rights for emerging powers to exert more pressure on human rights violators within the international system. But does that focus create an opportunity cost to other strategies and tactics, such as the creation of new, transnational NGO alliances and the cross-border sharing of skills and know-how to help advance human rights through local initiatives?
A key premise for any human rights NGO operating internationally should be that local advocates know best how, when, and if to draw on the international advocacy toolkit. Locally-driven strategies take into account a rich and diverse set of institutions, political actors and social trends, and they are therefore more likely to produce sustainable change.