Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 9 (Summer 1997): Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia: Articles: A People-Centered Approach to Human Rights

Jun 5, 1997

Throughout Asia the mobilization of local collective actions is beginning to replace dependence on the state as a means to prevent and redress human rights violations. A "people-centered" approach to human rights is arising from the grassroots, making people in struggle the determinative players in human rights standard setting, monitoring, and enforcement.

This approach not only challenges the current human rights regime’s tendency to view rights as bestowed and guaranteed by the state and available as protection against state actors, but it reveals other shortcomings in the dominant Western, liberal human rights paradigm. These shortcomings, as pointed out by critics in Asia and elsewhere, include: a preoccupation with individuals as bearers of a limited set of civil and political rights; excessive legalism; a somewhat adversarial nature; failure to incorporate non-Western bases for human rights; a disregard for notions of duty and collective rights; and the relegation of economic, social, and cultural rights to a secondary status.

Collective actions by marginalized communities are fueled by mounting frustration over government inertia with regard to implementing and protecting human rights. Through such grassroots movements, human rights have become an existential reality for increasing numbers of people throughout Asia. Mass-based human rights movements are emerging as migrant workers, forest dwellers, subsistence fisherfolk, landless rural laborers, urban squatters, slum dwellers, indigenous peoples, women, children, and other groups organize to realize their rights, sometimes with the assistance of sympathetic NGOs. Such collectives are different from NGOs in that they have not been officially organized with an established mandate, but rather have arisen spontaneously to deal with specific issues facing the group or community; they may later evolve into structured organizations.

This people-centered approach finds some of its strongest examples in the Philippines and the countries of South Asia. At this stage, one can only speculate as to the factors that might be contributing to the emergence of people-centered movements in these countries. Strategies of popular mobilization around state lawmaking or the drafting of international human rights standards are undeniably helped by a stable tradition of constitutionalism and an effective functioning judiciary, as in India, and by the presence of what is described in the Philippines as "alternative law groups," often made up of so-called barefoot lawyers, that provide paralegal assistance to make existing laws better understood and more broadly utilized. Mass-based movements to restore democracy in the Philippines, Nepal, and Bangladesh have also prepared the ground for new rights movements by working across lines of class, caste, religion, ethnicity, and gender. Intense economic deprivation and environ--mental degradation have spurred popular responses in Thailand, India, and Sarawak, Malaysia. In some countries, the inadequacies of national law have prompted people-centered movements to direct their efforts toward the establishment of new international human rights standards.

Human rights NGOs are strengthening this alter-native approach in many different ways, most importantly by playing an intermediary role between communities, government agencies, and professional groups. With the assistance of NGOs, people-initiated law reform efforts by subsistence fisherfolk have generated a Fisheries Code in the Philippines (see story below), and a similar effort by Filipino peasants has produced the Agrarian Reform Community and a comprehensive code for agrarian reform there. Existing international human rights standards are also playing a significant part. In the Philippines, for example, NGOs educated plantation workers, tenant farmers, and land-less rural laborers on the content of the International Labor Organization Convention 141 on Rural Workers Organizations, thereby providing them with the basis for forming their own organizations. At the National Law School of India, students participate in the law reform process through a yearly competition that has them work with local Indian communities to develop law proposals and then translate these community initiatives into official legal language.

In some cases, the "autogeneration" of human rights standards and norms has occurred. In these instances communities have identified their "component rights," or the specific rights they need to assert, without any outside influence or assistance. For example, bonded laborers throughout Southeast Asia demanded freedom from their predicament, thereby rendering the right to work laid out in international declarations and covenants more meaningful.

At the international level, indigenous peoples from many Asian countries have participated in the formulation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (see story below). Other marginal-ized collectivities whose concerns are not adequately addressed by the existing human rights regime have also organized to participate in and provide input into international standard setting on issues of internally displaced persons, migrant workers, minorities, and the right to development. These efforts often provide substantial support to United Nations working groups and special rapporteurs on these subjects.

People-centered efforts are not limited to rights enunciations; popular participation in the monitoring and investigation of human rights is increasing. A number of "Peoples Tribunals," organized by prominent regional NGOs, have been convened to deal with difficult and controversial issues such as: developmental violence against women; human rights denials resulting from structural adjustment programs and hazardous industrialization; massive human rights violations in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and East Timor; and outbreaks of communal violence in India. Communities affected by violations are joining forces with NGOs to monitor their governments’ human rights performance, especially with regard to the progressive implementation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and to assist in the preparation of critiques and alternative "People’s Reports" that can be presented as supplementary evidence to the official government reports required by the various human rights treaty bodies. Both official NGOs and informal community groups are working with the National Human Rights Commissions that have been established in many Asian countries, among them India, the Philippines, and Indonesia, to develop proactive pro-grams of reform of human rights law and institutions. In South Asia, NGOs and people’s organizations are turning to the courts to enforce human rights through social action litigation by addressing letter-petitions to the courts. Where reporting, petitions, courts, and tribunals have proved ineffective, groups such as the community forest dwellers in India and Sarawak, Malaysia, have resorted to collective enforcement actions to prevent illegal deforestation, which would have disastrous ramifications for the attainment of their most basic human rights.

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