A contribution to an exchange on Human Rights: Advancing the Frontier of Emancipation
Thank you very much for sharing this valuable essay by Kathryn Sikkink and for all the interesting contributions so far. Working directly with so-called Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in Central America, I share some of the expressed skepticism as well as some of the optimism towards “human rights” as an effective driving force for a global transformative change.
Indeed, there is a positive “trend” towards more binding pacts/treaties and codifications of rights at the international level that can provide activists a recourse. However, at the same time, we can observe a highly alarming trend of restricting the scope of action for activists and civil society organizations at the national level by means of the introduction or reforms of NGO or anti-terrorism laws. Such laws provide the basis to criminalize people who are trying to defend human rights—a strategy that is increasingly used by national governments (often in conjunction with corporations) be it in Guatemala or Turkey.
Furthermore, while the central message of Sikkink’s essay is that the human rights movement offers a beacon of hope for securing a livable world despite bleak prognostics about the future, the essay (and consequently also the comments) does only marginally discuss the movement dimension. I think that if we want to discuss about the potentials for a Great Transition, we cannot limit ourselves to talk about the human rights framework, but really have to focus on the potential “actors of change.”
Hence, an essential question is, whom do we mean when we talk about the human rights movement? I think it is highly relevant to be more specific about the players that constitute a global movement—or maybe more correctly a global “network of movements” or “movement of movements.” For example, what about the (power) relationships between big NGOs (e.g., Amnesty International) and grassroots activists? Who is part of the movement, and who are allies (experts, officials, professionals, etc.)? Who has access to money, knowledge, political arenas, and national and international mechanisms, and hence to justice? To what extent do global movements present a microcosm of the imbalances in power that characterized the world at large—e.g., Global North vs. Global South? This also implies the question of how to effectively combine the struggles at the local, national, and international levels. 1
1. For a discussion of these questions see, e.g., Srilatha Batliwala, “Grassroots Movements as Transnational Actors: Implications for Global Civil Society,” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 13 (2002): 393–409; Michael Edwards, “Global Civil Society and Community Exchanges: A Different Form of Movement,” Environment&Urbanization 13 (2001): 145–149.
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