Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 1 (Winter 2000): Human Rights for All? The Problem of the Human Rights Box: Articles: Reflections on Human Rights at Century's End

Dec 5, 1999

Human rights, as I understand them, are the most fundamental requirements for a fully human life. Only the language of human rights can adequately convey what is at stake when essentials of human life, such as dignity and freedom, are challenged. Torture or denial of access to food are so clearly in violation of what is vital to human integrity and well being that any other language—even that of constitutional rights—seems inadequate to capture the seriousness of the offense. Because the language locates these rights in what is essentially human rather than particular laws or customs, it also conveys the fact that the problem so described transcends a particular culture and society and is of universal importance and concern.

Yet increasingly, the term “human rights” is being challenged. A common criticism is that the term has been applied so often to so many problems that its impact has been lost. Because human rights are concerned only with what is essential and fundamental, the language sounds jarringly inappropriate—even ludicrous—when applied to issues that do not rise to this level, such as an increase in taxes or Internet pornography. However, in the United States, and perhaps in most countries, it can hardly be argued that human rights language is used too widely. A more likely explanation for both its relative lack of application and its limited power when used is that, as the human rights effort has moved from a cause to a professional career, it has increasingly employed an exclusive, legalistic language that fails to resonate with people’s lives and daily struggles. Its link to what is human and universal has been diminished, if not lost, and correspondingly, so has its power and appeal.

I have growing doubts about whether the human rights language we now use can be successful in capturing the imagination of a broad cross-section of people. In my experience, the increasingly legalistic approach to human rights has overshadowed a moral approach, which for me is what resonated early on. In the 1970s, when I had the good fortune to be a part of Amnesty International before it was a very wide network, questions of right and wrong formed the dominant discourse. I was not a lawyer. It was not a question of whether something violated Article X of this covenant or that covenant. It was that torture is wrong. Starvation is wrong. It was a language of morality, and it captured people’s imagination and made the human rights movement grow. Once human rights started to become a specialist language that only certain people who had been to school could access and only the experts could interpret correctly, it lost the ability to mobilize the vast majority of people.

Another equally formidable obstacle to achieving broad-based support is the operational structure of the human rights movement. Born in a colonial and neo-colonial world, the human rights movement has not kept pace with the rapidly and dramatically changing political environment. While opposing colonial structures and relationships substantively, operationally the movement initially both mirrored and made use of them. The human rights groups that sought to work internationally in the 1970s were based in the North, although they primarily focused their efforts on documenting human rights abuses in the South (and the East) to the exclusion of violations in their own regions. A few national organizations and many courageous individuals provided the raw material from the South for these Northern organizations. The Northern groups packaged this material into reports and press releases, which were then owned by the Northern groups and fed through the media or international mechanisms (also largely based in the North) to the governments of the South and only occasionally to their citizens. What is most striking about this model is how natural it seemed and how little critical notice was taken of it except by repressive governments. Perhaps this is because, given the political realities, it was hard to imagine an alternative.

Today, however, we are in a different situation. Where once there were scores of national human rights groups around the world, now there are thousands operating in every region and in almost every country. The implications for promoting human rights are profound and positive. National and local groups are far better placed to understand the social and political context in which violations are occurring and to devise appropriate strategies. They have a legitimacy that external actors lack. Particularly when they are rooted in local communities, domestic groups are in a position to mobilize social forces to ensure that human rights laws and policies are put not only in place but also into practice.

None of this means that there is no longer a need for international work. For myriad reasons, external pressure to uphold international norms is still vital and in some cases can be even more powerful than pressure from within. Moreover, because external actors are usually removed from partisan domestic battles, they can have a legitimacy and an authority of their own. Groups in the North, of course, also retain access to other powerful external forces that can be an important part of an overall strategy, such as wealthy governments, multinational institutions, and citizen action groups that can effectively organize boycotts and other forms of consumer pressure. Most important of all, international work upholds the notion that human rights are a matter of human and universal, not national and particular, concern, thus reaffirming in practice precisely what gives human rights norms their power.

The problem is that, although there is now for the first time the possibility of developing human rights strategies that take into account both international and national work, the basic overall structure of the human rights movement does not appear to have significantly changed. International work is still for the most part the domain of groups located in the North. Groups in the South are still seen largely as domestic partners or as “human rights defenders” who are protected by those doing international work. The possibility for groups outside Western Europe and the United States either to set the international agenda for human rights or even to influence, as equal partners, the strategies set by international groups for their countries is still very limited. To change this would take a much deeper commitment than currently exists on the part of either donors or NGOs to invest in travel, discussions, and the alteration of old patterns.

Nevertheless, there are some hopeful signs. New global movements—around such issues as globalization, land mines, and women’s rights—are successfully addressing barriers associated with colonial legacies and the excessive professionalization of human rights. More Southern groups are developing institutional mechanisms that will amplify their voices and increase their capacity to provide leadership on international strategies and agendas. Certainly there is greater awareness than ever before that these problems must be addressed. The best way to start is to recognize how far we have to go and begin to move actively toward the kind of genuinely popular and international human rights movement that is now possible and as desperately needed as ever.

*The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the analysis or positions of the Ford Foundation.

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