Advocacy / Human Rights Community / IHRFG Events

Navigating the Swamp: Public Opinion & Human Rights

IHRFG recently held its semi-annual conference and institute in New York, where participants debated, critiqued, re-framed and re-claimed the rights-based approach and the human rights brand. Following the event, we will share reflections from the funders who joined the conversation. Click here to read more.

Contributed by Neil Crowther, Director, Thomas Paine Initiative

UntitledGlobally, a battle is being fought regarding human rights.  But it is taking place not in the law courts, but in the court of public opinion.

Opponents of human rights are, on the whole, successfully framing the public discourse.  Human rights defenders frequently find themselves wading through perilous ‘swamps’ of public opinion.  In Africa, leaders accused of war crimes and the popular press – which they often own – cast the International Criminal Court as a Western imperialist venture, with themselves the ultimate victims.  In Europe, governments including the UK and Russia accuse the European Court of Human Rights of overreaching and undermining national sovereignty, threatening to leave the regional human rights system.  We heard how in Brazil, as in Britain and elsewhere, human rights are commonly thought to benefit criminals over the victims of crime.  Rather than being regarded as a cornerstone of democracy, peace and the rule of law, human rights are increasingly regarded as undemocratic, as undermining security and as violating justice and fairness by placing irresponsible individuals above the interests of the wider community.

Public opinion is capable of nurturing or destroying laws and institutions.  As a consequence, failure to proactively engage with public opinion on human rights marks a failure to adequately defend human rights.   But engaging and successfully marshaling public opinion in support of human rights is a huge task, requiring dedicated resources, specialist skills and concerted action.   This is not the world of a quick press release or information leaflet – communications as an afterthought.  This is communications as a central plank of achieving the change we seek, sitting side by side in our toolbox with activities such as litigation, monitoring and engaging in the political process.

IHRFG’s recent institute focused on framing and reclaiming the human rights ‘brand.’ As we learned from speakers including Dr. Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor from the Frameworks Institute, Frank Sharry from America’s Voice and others, successful communications demand a deep understanding of and ability to engage with the opinions and values of the wider public, not only those who share our values.  It also demands that we pay attention to the values and metaphors that are embedded – consciously or subconsciously – in the language, ideas, and images that we communicate.  These values and metaphors, not facts and figures, influence how the public responds to our messages.  For example, migrant rights campaigners might be able to detail evidence regarding the economic benefits of more open immigration policies, but the very same message is conveyed so much more powerfully in the metaphor ‘immigration is the wind in America’s sails.’  It’s equally important to avoid values and metaphors that may undermine our case.  We heard how children’s rights campaigners frequently emphasize vulnerability, yet analysis by the Frameworks Institute discovered that this lens actually depresses support for the policies that campaigners are pursuing.

We seem to lack a compelling meta-metaphor for human rights, and perhaps it is too ambitious – and possibly not all that helpful – to expect to find one that works consistently in every country of the world and across every issue involved.   Further, it strikes me that upholding the universalism of human rights might perversely demand that we focus communications efforts on the particular.   I wouldn’t be the first to come to the conclusion that building support for universal human rights requires concerted effort to locate their meaning in people’s everyday lives:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, “In Our Hands” (1958 speech delivered on the tenth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)


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