When I embarked on my career more than three decades ago, human rights were seen to matter. I first went to Central America in 1987 to document killings by US-backed armed forces, right-wing death squads, and left-wing guerrillas. At the time, human rights were part of the zeitgeist of US foreign policy and media attention. After I co-authored a report on numerous breaches of labor rights in El Salvador, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s former UN Ambassador, felt compelled to respond in the Washington Post in order to shore up congressional backing for continued military and economic aid. When I monitored Myanmar’s elections in 1989 (the first of Aung San Suu Kyi’s victories stolen from her) and investigated summary executions and torture in India’s Kashmir and Punjab regions in 1990, rights – to vote, to live, to enjoy physical security – carried weight in international diplomacy. Our findings were of interest to states. A few years later, when I oversaw human rights monitoring for the OSCE in Bosnia following the Dayton peace agreement and then litigated cases at the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of Roma victims of violence and discrimination from several countries, rights lay at the core of Europe’s broader political project aimed at reuniting the continent in the aftermath of the Cold War.
How times have changed.
In recent years, as democracy has receded and authoritarianism has risen in much of the globe, human rights are getting a large share of the blame, whether for “provoking sharp backlash from illiberal strongmen [and] right-wing populists,” for acting with “hubris” in refusing to “acknowledge its failures” or for not taking “seriously the forces that lead so many people to vote in majoritarian strongmen in the first place.”
Let’s concede that, like other struggles for justice and equality, the human rights movement is far from perfect. Some of the critiques have merit.
So, it is said, rights defenders place too much emphasis on moral principle to the exclusion of real-world results. As a rights lawyer, I take pride – perhaps too much – in trying to stand on what I see as the correct side of an issue. And it’s true that popular support for democracy and rights rests at least as much on their ability to deliver social and economic advances for real people. The human rights movement is often most effective when it marries principle to the pragmatic reality of everyday struggles through strategic planning and nimble adjustment.
Another concern is that human rights have become a lawyer’s playground. Yes, legal backing and judicial enforcement give rights tangible force. Still, too much rights discourse is freighted with legalese and dominated by those with legal training.
And some activists have until recently not given sufficient emphasis to the rights implications of widening economic inequality that has contributed to polarization and popular frustration. Many may wonder to what extent the dependence of so many human rights groups on wealthy private philanthropy has affected their focus.
But some critiques go too far. The “naming and shaming” tactic long favored by many NGOs has no doubt lost some capacity to galvanize in an age when social media offers up a ready supply of mass shootings and atrocities. And yet, recent controversies make clear that rights rhetoric, and the reputational gains and damage that it bestows, can still pack a punch. Earlier this month, Amnesty International’s allegation that the “fighting tactics” of Ukrainian forces “endangers civilians” provoked a firestorm of outrage. This spring, during and after a historic visit to mainland China, Michele Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, encountered withering criticism for declining to speak out about Chinese government abuses in Xinxiang. Amnesty’s action and Bachelet’s inaction stung because, like it or not, words retain some power to shame.
And it’s a distortion to lay much of the blame for the rise of populist authoritarianism at the feet of the human rights movement. It’s not the tools of human rights that are giving rise to autocrats; rather, it’s the absence of economic opportunity for many, the paucity of imaginative political alternatives and those strongmen’s own ruthlessness in flouting democratic rules. For better or worse, rights activists – many of them thinly-resourced – lack the financial or political capital to compete on an even playing field with governments that command vast tax revenues, multi-national corporations or well-heeled political candidates and parties.
More to the point, most human rights actors have a fundamentally different mission from political leaders and once-liberal governments — even though many critics conflate human rights advocates with those political forces. Whether in office or in opposition, well-intended or not, most politicians have as their principal goal the assumption, preservation, and consolidation of political power. By contrast, the main aim of the human rights movement is to hold those in power accountable for the way they exercise it.
Politicians in electoral regimes seek to build and retain numerical majorities. Rights activists are concerned with the rights of all, including the economically disadvantaged and racial, gender and other minorities often overlooked or overridden by the majority.
Many critics focus their concerns on the most prominent brand names, but much rights work today is carried out, not by international organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but by an array of national and grassroots groups addressing problems with care and sophistication in the countries where they live and work.
For example, in Argentina, in recent years reproductive rights groups joined forces with a diverse coalition of women to challenge long-standing abortion prohibitions. By carefully framing abortion as an issue of social justice and public health, they sparked sustained popular mobilization and protest which led the Argentine Congress to legalize abortion in December 2020. Rights groups have engaged in similarly variegated and comprehensive campaigns to gain legislative and judicial victories for the right to abortion in Colombia, Ireland, and Mexico.
In Kenya, local human rights groups have forged robust partnerships to capitalize on their respective strengths to slow a government-led rush to adopt an imported, exclusionary digital identification system. In the process, they have enabled advocacy with government officials and litigation in domestic courts on issues of data privacy and non-discrimination. Some groups focused on community mobilization and awareness-raising, while others sponsored social media campaigns and WhatsApp groups and still others led talks with government insiders and took cases to court. As a result of this well-coordinated campaign, the government was compelled to promulgate a legal foundation for digital identity and a law on data protection that had been sought for more than a decade.
Creative legal argumentation has persuaded courts in Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries to ground recognition of corporate and state responsibility for climate change in rights-based claims on behalf of children, future generations, and other stakeholders.
By defending and expanding the space for public dialogue, by lifting up the voices of marginalized communities, and by protecting the guardrails of systems which aspire in principle, if not in practice, to the rule of law, rights defenders have played major, if indirect, roles in enabling mass movements and political parties to push for systemic changes in Chile, Colombia and, potentially, Sri Lanka.
Even in the United States, the ground-breaking achievements of the civil rights movement more than half a century ago – in the streets, in the courts, and in the halls of government – laid a crucial foundation for more recent mobilization by Black Lives Matter activists to confront the continuing manifestations of white supremacy in the United States and abroad.
Finally, rooting rights work in local communities and tailoring it to the needs of each place do not mean that we should give up on universal principles. Recalling that certain commitments have been subscribed to by most governments grants them more weight than they would otherwise have. Values shared by all, or nearly all, matter even though they are often honored in the breach, in part because they underscore our common humanity. The fact that virtually the entire world has agreed to outlaw torture, and to protect the rights of children, sets down a marker of what is not acceptable (even if it remains possible) and provides a framework for political discussion both within, and among, nation states.
The rights movement has much room to grow as it contends with political forces in many ways less favorable than those that prevailed a quarter century ago. Honest reflection prompted by thoughtful critics is essential. But the pathways to “winning” don’t require that we abandon the movement’s moral foundations or its distinctive methodologies. To the contrary, rights advocates should draw on their own increasingly diverse experiences to highlight and tackle inequality, address corporate as well as state violations, strengthen alliances with popular movements, and build on the numerous examples of creative activism that have produced positive, if limited, results.