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A Wake-Up Call for Human Rights

Current criticisms of human-rights advocacy contain much truth, and rights groups must adjust their approach accordingly. At the same time, however, activists should be under no illusion that the rights movement alone can win the battle against illiberal populism.
Law concept. Silhouette of Themis with building background. Statuette of justice. Statuette of the goddess of justice

The world is going to pot, and the human-rights movement is largely to blame. That bizarre critique, popular with dictators and criminals, has taken hold even among some rights supporters who are stunned by the assault on liberal values that defines our age. Having proven unable to halt the negative tide, human-rights advocacy, we are told, is in “crisis,” “has failed,” and is in its “end times.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently established a panel that will supposedly provide “fresh thinking about human rights discourse” but will most likely undermine gender equality and reproductive freedoms.

Clearly, rights activists must up their game. But they should be under no illusion that the human-rights movement alone can save the planet.

Many criticisms have been leveled at human-rights discourse, but three stand out. Perhaps the most common is that rights advocates have done too little to address economic inequality. Indeed, over the past four decades, the international human-rights movement has grown hand in hand with obscene disparities of wealth.

A second concern is over-legalization. Norms and standards go only so far if they are not implemented in real life. A favorable court judgment that prompts celebration among activists is often just the beginning of a long enforcement struggle. And a preoccupation with legal claims has blinded the movement to the underlying moral values that move many to action.

Finally, critics argue, the result of excessive reliance on law has been to overlook people. On this view, rights defenders have spent so much time refining arguments for courts and legislatures that they have failed to consult adequately, let alone cooperate meaningfully, with the victims, survivors, family members, and others on whose behalf they purport to advocate.

These strategic failures have allowed authoritarian leaders to paint rights advocates as an enemy elite. In this vein, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has urged his fellow citizens to “reject the fake civil-society activists […] who want to tell us how to live and with whom, how to speak, and how to raise our children.”

Yet the criticisms contain much truth, and they lead to clear prescriptions. We must pay more attention to economic suffering. We must relearn how to speak less like lawyers and more like people. And we must work more collaboratively with likeminded groups that don’t identify themselves as rights defenders, but whose contributions – whether through science, technology, economics, or the arts – can foster rights awareness.

Thankfully, some rights organizations are listening. Amnesty International now aims to increase its membership to 25 million, with a focus on youth, while Human Rights Watch intends to collaborate more closely with activists in the global South.

These suggested reforms will no doubt help. But they will not be sufficient by themselves to reverse the populist onslaught.

We in the human-rights movement must be realistic about our distinctive but limited role in propelling change on the scale needed to confront the current authoritarian threat. Rights advocates have achieved a lot, and we will do more. But rolling back reactionary politics worldwide requires not just rights activism, but also deeper engagement in political debate and elections. That’s a task not just for the rights movement, but for everyone.

Although the impact of rights advocacy can’t be measured in monetary terms, the differences between the amounts spent on it and on political campaigning are revealing. Although annual philanthropic funding for “human rights and social justice” has increased worldwide in recent years, it remains under $3 billion. That is less than half the cost of India’s 2019 parliamentary election, and 50% of the amount spent by candidates in the 2016 presidential and congressional races in the United States.

Human-rights groups must acknowledge their own responsibility for fueling excessive expectations of what advocacy can achieve – whether out of a need to fundraise, an undue sense of moral purity, or a related desire to rise above the dirty game of politics.

And yet, even amid the prevailing gloom, political organizing and elections are leading to positive change. Armenia, Ethiopia, The Gambia, and Malaysia have all experienced progressive electoral transitions in the past three years, while populists suffered setbacks in the 2018 US midterm elections and in Indonesia. These outcomes turned on issues such as corruption, climate change, poverty, #MeToo, and others that both relate to and extend well beyond human rights. And although rights organizations contributed to these victories, so did political parties, labor unions, women’s coalitions, environmentalists, and professional associations.

As these gains suggest, the battle against illiberal populism will ultimately be won in the arenas of politics and power – in voting booths, legislative offices, the media, and the streets. Rights arguments will sometimes be critical, but not everywhere, and not always.

So by all means, let’s celebrate the many achievements of human-rights advocacy, and resolve to do better. But don’t saddle the rights movement with the entire burden of transforming the world.

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