The vitality of human rights in times of turbulence
In a recent book, I look at a number of human rights campaigns around the world and how successful they are and where they are. I contend that even in a very turbulent and difficult time when human rights are contested on all sides, human rights approaches not only retain their vitality and urgency for activists, but have also yielded results. substantial over time. I suggest that if attention is shifted from a predominant focus on a handful of leading NGOs in the Global North, and on the dynamism of social movements and human rights activism around the world, a more complete set of views of the cathedral – of the landscape of human rights – emerges. The book offers an experimental theory of the effectiveness of human rights law and advocacy that is interactive (involving the engagement of social movements, civil society actors with international norms, networks and institutions), iterative (involving continued action) and long-term (pursuing social and fundamental changes rarely achieved quickly).
Yet there is little reason for complacency or coolness. These are very difficult times for human rights, and for human rights defenders, activists and defenders around the world. The wave of illiberalism continues to sweep the world and liberal democracy is in an increasingly unhealthy state. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated existing inequalities, corporate power continues to grow and escape government control, while powerful new alliances of religious and political actors have acted not only to suppress rights of disadvantaged communities and constituencies, but also try to rethinking the understanding of human rights in very conservative, exclusionary and illiberal directions. Repression of civil society, and freedom of assembly, expression and protest continues at a steady pace, with the number of murders of environmental activists and others growing every year.
At the same time, longtime human rights critics of the progressive left have become popular and mainstream, with influential books in recent years poking fun at the weaknesses, failures and dysfunctions of human rights, and their complicity with colonialism and neoliberalism. Many of these critiques have been powerful and important, and several have sparked thought and reform proposals from human rights practitioners and scholars.
The call for human rights at least for those seeking justice (even if not for academic critics) seems more powerful than ever.
But many of the most important criticisms go beyond a call to rethink or reform. They argue that the era of human rights is over, that its end of time is here, that human rights law and the human rights movement are ill-suited to address the injustices of our time, that the failure of human rights approaches to seek or bring about structural change where economic justice highlights their deeply neoliberal character Where camaraderie, and that human rights defenders should perhaps no longer seek to preserve human rights, but should instead make room for more radical movements.
In my book, I argue that some of the more damning criticisms are overblown and partial. Like the proverbial view of the cathedral, many of the harshest critics focus solely or primarily on one particular dimension of the human rights system, and tend to caricature and reduce a complex, plural and dynamic set of movements to one. alone, monolithic and dysfunctional. . As the most pessimistic critics write human rights obituaries, multiple constituencies around the world are mobilizing and using human rights language and tools in the pursuit of social, environmental justice. , economic and others. From #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, climate justice and indigenous movements to reproductive rights marches in Poland, Argentina and Ireland, to protest movements in Belarus, Myanmar, Nigeria and Chile, the call of the human rights at least for those who seek justice (even if not for academic critics) seems more powerful than ever.
None of this suggests that human rights defenders should not constantly review and reassess their premises, institutions and strategies. On the contrary, fierce criticisms of human rights for failing to address structural injustices and economic inequalities have helped galvanize change and a reorientation of priorities and approaches on the part of governments. various actors and institutions concerned. Human rights activists and movements must be vigilant to ensure that they serve and are led by the interests of those whose rights are at stake, that they do not hinder other movements and progressive tactics, and that their approaches are tailored to daunting and profoundly transformative challenges. challenges of these times of pandemic, including accelerated climate change, digitization, ever-growing inequalities and illiberalism. In view of these risks and dangers, the diverse and heterogeneous range of actors who make up the international human rights community have an indispensable role to play, in turbulent times, within the broader framework of social and economic movements. progressive environmental and cultural.