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Human rights: Food for a movement-building thought


Human Rights Reader 391


(Excerpted and adapted from Dr Oscar Lanza, PHM Bolivia)


  1. Growth of a veritable human rights network is needed to succeed in coordinating actions that pointedly pursue achieving a greater degree of social cohesion, of solidarity, of expanded contacts and of partnerships with other non-necessarily human rights (HR) institutions and networks. The latter is important to draw on their experience and thus enable its leaders, activists and volunteers from across the country to jointly encourage greater social commitment in holding authorities accountable to the various interdependent issues of HR. Only this will overcome the current still-far-too-prevalent indifference about HR.


  1. Local organization is to further empower society as a whole, in particular the most excluded and vulnerable groups. This can be achieved in many ways:
  • widely spreading short radio messages in simple language, as well as in native languages to ensure people’s understanding;
  • engaging natural leaders and the press on the most burning HR issues;
  • producing printed materials for community education;
  • organizing lectures in marginalized urban and rural areas for diverse groups;
  • providing up-to-date, independent information based on evidence to, among other, health workers and teachers;
  • sharing and popularizing relevant research reports;
  • proposing alternative and concrete solutions to authorities (duty bearers);
  • demanding greater social participation in the running of social services;
  • effectively mobilizing committed students;
  • visiting communities to coordinate rural work;
  • coordinating activities with trade unions an political parties, and
  • training new, local and regional activists aiming at growing the network.


  1. With these actions, credibility, prestige, respect, social recognition and a gain in credibility is importantly won and the local organization becomes progressively more influential as an active social protagonist and validator of outside knowledge, not just domestically, but also internationally –always committed to the protection of HR.


  1. Mobilizing groups of claim holders, is not free of obstacles and risks, including protests and demonstrations of outrage in the press from those-who-identify-groups-demanding-changes as a risk. This, since the ruling minority perceives community and social empowerment threatens them when HR issues are strongly linked to politics, to power relations and to the unfair distribution of resources. What they will seek first is discrediting the movement’s leaders subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny in their actions, including personal issues. All imaginable ways of intimidation and anonymous threats are used seeking to undermine the commitment of the participants in an attempt to damage the relationships and alliances with other institutions. The same minority will also obstruct and undermine these active groups’ access to support and/or possible financing. Additionally, they will try to poison and corrupt some of the members of the movement at the interior of their own ranks.


  1. Risks and threats may not only come from the outside, but also from the inside. These will seek to undermine the morale of the leaders, of participating volunteers and of academics committed to support claim holders placing concrete HR demands; the aim is to attempt dismantling the movement.


  1. These growing risks can only be countered with a solid commitment to the HR principles and values that progressively continue to inspire and generate growing public self-confidence. Constantly needed are information-that-can-be-trusted and a continued motivation to raise more and more awareness. In this, the support of public universities, professional schools, professional associations, academics, volunteers, trade unions, progressive political parties and social organizations committed to the progress in HR work can and should be elicited. Only thus can the pressures of powerful interests be countered successfully. Not to be forgotten, the conflicts of interest of some self-proclaimed experts, local, regional and international undermining this type of HR initiatives and actions must also be unmasked and denounced.


  1. Human rights activism is inseparable from ongoing HR learning, from daily reflecting and more deeply analyzing the determinants of social injustice, of poverty, of uneven and unfair power relations, of inequalities, of the deliberate and perverse weakening of public social services by forces seeking to keep the dependence on the (unfair) rules of the market. These forces also want to avoid people analyzing the growing conflict of interest around decisions that affect people’s rights.


  1. All the above inevitably leads to demands for changes in the structures of power, in social policies, in unfair existing regulations… Easier said than done since, one has to be aware, this implies yet greater challenges and more risks. Nevertheless, the experience progressively acquired can and does lead to networks joining together to put forward concrete proposals for regulatory, legislative and eventually constitutional changes by emphasizing the crucial role of including articles that explicitly protect HR.* (We note that past experience shows that constitutional changes laboriously won have, to date, failed to be translated into concrete actions favoring people at the operational level).

*: For those who do not live this experience, it is difficult to understand the passion that awakens when defending HR. They do not adequately value the efforts and courage of others to build this type of movement.


  1. Usually, once they grow, HR movements attract common citizens who share a vision, a mission, a common utopia, one that requires high social commitment and sensitivity. Ultimately, a HR movement arises only thanks to the perseverance of highly committed people who believe in the values and principles of greater social justice. However, as these movements develop, there is a risk that new and different actors who join do so with a ‘more pragmatic’ approach, not moved by a genuine social commitment, but rather seeking easy social recognition, some benefit or figuration and enhancement of their self-esteem.


  1. Initially, organizational efforts must have very strong roots in rural and urban peripheral communities, not forgetting the risk of a bureaucratization of activities when engagement in lobbying and advocacy actions neglect the links and contact with the original base communities. Staying faithful to the commitment to empower communities, requires not to neglect the continuous contact with the less favoured and vulnerable groups, interacting with them for an ever renewed clearer understanding of the social, political and economic factors that continue to affect their lives. At the same time, their awareness of their own potential to control their lives has to be ever strengthened. Therefore, it is vital to not only adhere to the movement because of a shared general vision among its members, but also based on people adhering to the values and principles they hold dear.


  1. There is then the additional risk of becoming dependent on those who lend these movements financial support and, not in few cases, press to impose their priorities, strategies, and roadmaps for action thus undermining the initial purposes of the movement and its demands. This clearly undercuts the movement pushing certain specific actions that go against a comprehensive holistic HR-based approach and contributing to the fragmentation of the approaches.


  1. Moreover, many apparently well-intentioned donors or funders provide support, but based on increasingly technocratic and bureaucratic demands whose purpose, in some cases, really is to to absorb much of the time and efforts of the local actors who, before, dedicated more time to community empowerment and social actions. These funders then press to invest that time in thorough, technocratic reports to them.**

**: In other circumstances, these movements work or seek to work ‘with’ corporations or their philanthropic branches. But this only makes sure that such movements do not work ‘against’ corporations, nor criticize their philanthropic arms. This thus infiltrates alleged ‘well-intentioned collaborators’ in the activities of these movements rather than genuinely supporting them.


  1. Partnerships established with other networks may be beneficial in joining forces and achieving greater effectiveness. But this also may, in some circumstances, have perverse effects in which the new partner pursues greater visibility towards international donors or attempts to justify inflated budgets that benefit circles of close friends. While local partners are welcome, one has to question their motives discarding them if these are spurious. HR movements have to protect their own survival while they preach solidarity based on principles. 


  1. It is not uncommon for governments, in some countries where there are these movements or activities, to increase their control and require endless reporting, not really to ensure transparency, openness and true social responsibility, but in order to curb these groups’ activities.


  1. And a final point: Leadership must be renewed for the movement to be healthy and to ensure needed continuity so as to provide new leaders, young people, the opportunity to drive the HR initiatives built with so much effort, passion, dedication, and commitment. Entrenched leadership risks loosing a genuine social commitment, loosing the necessary sensitivity based on principles and values and loosing the operating experience of working with grassroots communities that were those that inspired these movements to begin with. The effort that was built over decades risks falling apart quickly. It is always easier to destroy than to build. The situation is more painful, traumatic and unfair for those who, as pioneers, spent the best years of their lives, striving to achieve their dreams.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Human rights were not a present given by generous States. They always had to be eked out in prolonged struggles in factories and in market places. From their start in the early 18th century in clandestine associations, labor movements organized class struggles and, still today, trade unions defend social and workers’ rights and organize resistance against the breakdown of the capitalist social system. But, beware, often these trade unions still follow their sectoral interests and defend the rights of workers in the traditionally organized big industries and scantily (if at all) join the struggle for other HR causes. (Birgit Daiber)

-We have to reach new heights with the wings of enthusiasm. Reasoning things out too much, we may never fly. (Anatole France)

-We can be individuals of disparate nature, but we do share some codes that always make the communication among us fluid. (Maria Duenias)

-Defend your happiness, organize your rage. (Graffiti in Madrid)



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Right to health: Food for a de-commodification thought


Human Rights Reader 390


  1. The reason why global health policy-makers are not implementing the knowledge generated by global health scholars with the right empirical, every-day experience, is not because they use different normative standards; it is because, when selecting priorities, too many policy-makers are politically constrained by the interests and the power structures in their environment. The conflict is not a difference in normative opinion, but rather a political issue. (C. Askheim)


  1. Alex Scott-Samuel speaks of ‘fantasy paradigms leading to health inequalities’ or, as he says, of utopian health thinking’. He argues that in this world fantasy its proponents describe how global policy officials tend to write and speak within a parallel world in which the political economy of the global economic crisis and the brutality of imperial geopolitics do not exist and add that global health policies must simply comprise cost-effective interventions, political promises and philanthropic largesse.


Choices on offer in health care attract consumerist sympathy


  1. Fact: The appropriation of health care by business is being legitimized by policy makers –and, with that, goes the loss of the ideas of citizenship and solidarity implicit and explicit in social rights. So strong has the pressure to extend capitalist appropriation in the profitable domain of health care been that not even ideological consistency has been respected: Actually, neoliberal principles such as efficiency have themselves been ignored. In poor countries, excessive emphasis on cost-effectiveness has brought health care systems not only not to focus on the most vulnerable, but also to be run in an economically unsustainable way. Since the middle and upper classes are more likely to have their voices heard, their more exclusive and expensive health care needs are prioritized to the detriment of the vast majority of the people rendered poor. What social rights primarily demand is the de-commodification of key areas such as the provision of health care, education and other essential social services. (Eduardo Arenas)


  1. As regards the effects of privatization on research, note that influential randomized trials are largely done by and for the benefit of industry. Moreover, fashionable meta-analyses supposedly leading to guidelines have become a factory also often serving vested interests. National and international research funds are funneled almost exclusively to research with little relevance to global health outcomes. Bottom line here, under market pressure, clinical medicine has been transformed to finance-based medicine. (John Ioannidis)


  1. We thus need a whole new wave and breed of public interest civil society health activism to address what has been called the “GLP” virus (standing for Globalization, Liberalization and Privatization) that is causing a monumental global health divide that has become shocking if not criminal. (Anwar Fazal)


Our human rights struggle in health focuses on addressing the eminently social function of health and nutrition (Malik Ozden, CETIM)


  1. Let me start with a caveat: It is not an innocent stands when colleagues and whole health systems attempt to reduce the right to health to the-right-to-receive-medical-care.* For the right to health to become a reality, policies of all sectors must fall into place. Further (and much) more, the fulfillment of the right to health requires the social mobilization of claim holders to grow steadfastly –to demand the needed changes. (Julio Monsalvo)

*: This is typical for countries that, despite high levels of economic growth and of consumption, have not implemented the needed institutional reforms that guarantee homogeneous progress by deliberately giving priority to measures in the realm of social and human development. Yes, inequality is unfair and cruel, as well as unacceptable in a society striving to be called ‘developed’. (Foro Salud Peru)


  1. Why the caveat? Because the right to health simply has to guarantee:
  • universal and comprehensive health care that includes claim holders’ active participation;
  • an increase in the public expenditures on health with priority given to address the needs of the neediest;
  • universal access to generic medicines and essential medical equipment including sovereign pharmaceutical policies;
  • a rejection of the signing and ratification of undemocratic and unfair trade agreements;
  • quality health care and dignified treatment;
  • a closing of the gap in essential health personnel and their needs;
  • addressing the social determinants of health and pursuing active health promotion activities and, last but not least,
  • addressing the special needs of women, gender issues and all issues of sexual and reproductive health. (Foro Salud, Peru)

I ask: How can all this possibly be achieved using a top-down approach?


  1. For our colleagues in El Salvador, the right to health tasks at hand further include:
  • The immediate abolition of all payments in the public health system allowing an increase in the access to health according to need all the way to the tertiary level.
    • Passing legislation that regulates the prices of medicines nationwide.
    • Giving a decisive push to citizens’ participation in the planning and monitoring of health policies from the primary to the tertiary level.**
    • Setting up immediate and ongoing evaluation mechanisms of the delivery of patient-friendly, non-discriminatory health services.**
    • Giving No.1 priority to comprehensive primary health care with ad-hoc health care teams assigned to specific geographic areas.
    • Organizing and coordinating the sector’s claim holders to coalesce into public interest civil society pressure groups.

**: But the health indicators currently in use are ambivalent; some advance slowly (…and more for some in society) while other stay put or deteriorate. The time for less-than-useful statistics to yield to right-to-health-sensitive data has come; reality and truth must impose themselves on the data being/to be collected so that social and health policies start addressing real human and citizens’ needs. (Foro Salud Peru)


  1. Given the above, organized claim holders, therefore, must:
  • Urgently organize and mobilize to repeal irresponsible public policies that highlight economic growth, but hide stagnating poverty indexes. [Perpetuating the use of national averages in health statistics is an example of how this hiding operates].
  • Use all their energies to negotiate/demand the needed political changes/compromises based on pragmatic and legally-binding measures that will fulfill the right to health for all. [The dialogues with government and with public opinion leaders (duty bearers), as well as the claimants’ presence in the public debate through the media must be matched by their organizations’ capacity to monitor health policies (their application) and health statistics (their use) in all health services].
  • Work within a political framework that actively pursues the right to health and that deepens all people’s participation making sure they achieve not only voice, but influence as the only way to guarantee needed changes are eventually made. [An effective popular participation is the key element that gives legitimacy to the claim holders’ human rights (HR) protection struggle and gives legitimacy to their fight against the stigma, the discrimination and the exclusion that affects so many in their quest for quality health care].
  • Demand that health interventions apply HR principles and standards respecting all international HR covenants and conventions.
  • Consolidate an active and wide social and political movement that will address the social determinants of health face-on. [The commoditization and the medicalization of health are just two examples of important determinants of people’s health that need to be tackled].
  • Involve the above movement much more with the struggle for a cleaner and cooler environment.
  • Lobby for the curricula of health professionals to be amended so as to revert the current model being taught centered around treating diseases and increasing the productivity of the health work force. [Breaking with the biomedical model is urgent since it leads individuals and society to situations detrimental to health].
  • Become part of the struggle for fairer remuneration of the health workforce, and
  • Denounce, amend and/or revert all the current measures that affect HR and people’s liberties. [An example is all current and in-negotiation free trade agreements]. (Foro Salud, Peru)


In the Universal Health Coverage era: Is health equality a sibling of the right to health?


  1. If and where universal health care (UHC) is implemented in line with the recommendations of WHO, it is said it can come close to being anchored in the right to health. But is it? Let us see:
  • First, UHC anchored in the right to health requires that cost–effectiveness criteria are used with much more care to avoid justifying UHC when it is not complying with the minimum principles and standards demanded by the right to health.
  • Second, identifying and overcoming the multiple barriers stemming from socioeconomic exclusion and/or discrimination is certainly vital to advancing UHC –but it is not sufficient in itself. Efforts are required to identify the specific groups that are vulnerable or marginalized in a given country and region(s) to make sure they are included in all UHC plans so as to ensure that health coverage is truly universal.
  • Third, comparing UHC and right to health norms highlights the difference between a UHC anchored in the right to health and UHC not explicitly anchored in the right to health. (Ooms)


The right to health demands a set of core obligations that apply to all countries, regardless of their wealth


  1. The right to health guarantees a minimum level of health care –anywhere. In that sense, UHC cannot have any kind of ‘floor’. If the economic context of a given country leads to a level of health care that does not even address standard health threats of the most vulnerable, how can UHC, as currently proposed, tolerate that? Beware: Such a UHC does not guarantee a commensurate level of core health care entitlements to vulnerable groups as the right to health does. Furthermore, UHC norms pay little attention to vulnerable and marginalized groups in terms of their active participation in decision-making. (Ooms)


  1. Bottom line, if UHC is not anchored in the right to health it risks not being universal with respect to providing coverage to all people. It is the focusing on coverage percentages not disaggregating data by vulnerable groups what masks exclusion. The complex interplay between social marginalization or exclusion and economic exclusion can render vulnerable and marginalized individuals (e.g. the child of an unmarried, undocumented migrant) and groups invisible to the authorities. Addressing this added dimension of exclusion is thus a priority if UHC is to be anchored in the right to health. Procedurally, UHC anchored in the right to health requires that authorities engage with those who are excluded and devise policies with them to amend the health system accordingly –actually the whole social system more broadly. Only this will make UHC truly universal. (Gorik Ooms for WHO)


Universal Health Coverage, taxes and wages


  1. Tax revenue is a major statistical determinant of progress towards UHC. Each U$10 per-capita increase in tax revenue is associated with up to an additional U$1 of public health spending per capita. Whereas each $10 increase in GDP per capita is statistically associated with increases in the order of U$0.10. Crucially, tax revenues sit on the pathway between economic growth and health spending. In short, tax reform is an efficient way of translating economic growth into greater health spending. Over time, taxation within a country is associated with changes in infant mortality. The results have been crystal clear. Where taxes on goods and services increase (thereby increasing the cost of food and health care), infant mortality also increases.  However, where taxes on income, profits, and capital gains increase (progressive taxation), we do not find this same relationship. Some countries can further increase revenues through reducing corporate tax evasion. Bottom line here, tax is a cornerstone on which we can achieve UHC. (A. Reeves)


  1. The above notwithstanding, defending wage subsidies to secure a ‘basic income’ is not the solution for UHC; we ought to think twice before defending this. Receiving a ‘better’ basic income to only then have to pay for privatized health services will certainly not tackle inequalities. (Francine Mestrum)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City




Twelve arguments pointing towards why we need to embark on empowering community capacity building activities in health (From HR Reader 15)


  1. The notions of duty and justice (…and not compassion!) give the right to health its cutting edge.
  2. Power is a key relation between health and HR issues. A right confers power, i.e. the power to make key changes as far reaching as the prevailing health system allows claim holders to demand for. (It is our duty to help making the latter possible).

III. People have full power only when they are able to alter existing power relations. (It is our duty to help making this possible too).

  1. X has to have power over Y to affect results. Power thus needs to be used to change an existing unfair health system and to turn it to the people’s advantage. (It is our duty to help this use is made).
  2. Only exercising power can people freely select among the realistic available possible solutions (people’s empowerment is thus needed).
  3. Active claims are rather useless if there is no power to have duty bearers enforce their public health duties.

VII. A party other than the duty bearers has to have power over the duties in order to make sure most public health duties are enforced.

VIII. Ergo, to enforce a duty, the claim holder needs power over the duty bearer.

  1. It is not good if the claim holders have no power or control over the enforcement of their health claims.
  2. Actually, people can only have a true health claim when they also have the power to claim for it; the power is a necessary ingredient in their claim; ergo, having a claim necessarily involves having (or acquiring) power.
  3. Claim holders cannot only be passive beneficiaries of the duties of others.

XII. People’s health rights are recognized as long as the claim holders have power over the duties not being enforced.



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Human rights: Food for changing a thought (part 2)


Human Rights Reader 389


Our time is marked by the predominance of fear over hope


  1. A pact between the different constituencies of claim holders must be the result of a political reading that says that what is at stake is the very survival of democracies (and of human rights) worthy of the name, as well as the survival of the planet. The actions that this calls for are as pressing as to literally salvage that which neoliberalism has not yet been able to destroy.


  1. According to the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, people (and I should add, societies as well) are governed by two basic emotions: fear and hope. There is a complex balance between the two, but we need them both if we wish to survive. Fear is the dominant emotion when one’s expectations about the future are negative (“this is bad, but the future could be worse”); in turn, hope has the upper hand when future expectations are positive or, in any event, when refusal of the alleged inevitability of negative expectations is widely shared.


  1. Thirty or more years after the global assault on workers’ rights; after all the proclamations of social inequality and egotism as the ultimate social virtues; after the unprecedented plunder of natural resources and the expulsion of whole populations from their land, as well as the environmental destruction caused by it; after the fostering of war and terrorism to create failed states and make societies defenseless in the face of plundering; after the poorly negotiated imposition of free trade agreements that are entirely controlled by the interests of multinational corporations; after the absolute supremacy of financial capital over productive capital and the lives of peoples and communities —after all this, in combination with the hypocritical defense of ‘liberal democracy’, it is plausible to conclude that neoliberalism is a huge machine for producing negative expectations aimed at keeping the popular classes from finding out about the true reasons for their suffering and thus make them, not only conform with what little they still have, but also remain paralyzed by the fear of losing even that.


  1. Never forget that the-right-to-have-rights is an irreversible civilizational achievement. Can it then be that just when there is a new glimmer of hope, disagreement will resurface and the necessary pacts among claim holders will be thrown overboard? Were that to happen, it would be fatal to claim holders in the popular classes, who will promptly return to their muted hopelessness in the face of fatalism, a fatalism, moreover, that is as violent for the vast majorities as it is generous to the tiny minorities.


  1. A renewed constitutional pedagogy in all areas of government is needed. Why? Because the prevailing patriarchal political system has not allowed citizens to regain the capacity and competence to actively intervene and participate in political life. Biased electoral systems, ‘partidocracia’ (in Spanish), corruption, manipulated financial crises –these are some of the reasons for the double crisis of representation (“they do not represent us”) and participation (“it is not worth voting, they are all the same and no one ever delivers on their promises”).


  1. The hegemony of the neoliberal set of ideas about society, as well as the interpretations of the world and of life is predominant by reason of being widely shared –including by those very social groups who are harmed by them. This makes it possible for political elites, through their use of such ideas and interpretations, to rule by consensus rather than by coercion, even when their rule goes against the objective interests of majority social groups. The idea that poor people happen to be poor through their own fault is one of these hegemonic ideas. Worse, mistakes not only are not seen as mistakes, but actually go unnoticed and are even turned into political virtues, or at least accepted as the inevitable outcome of the existing development governance.


  1. But there is a growing struggle against neoliberalism being waged both in formal education and in the promotion of popular education, in the media and in the support to the alternative media, in scientific research and in the changes to university curricula, in the social networks and in cultural activities.


  1. The condemnation of capitalism by self-proclaimed left-wing governments tends to primarily focus on corruption and, therefore, on the immorality and illegality of capitalism, rather than on the systematic injustice of the system of domination that functions in strict adherence to capitalism’s legality and morality. The need to keep participatory democracy alive within the left-wing parties themselves is a precondition for the adoption of resistance-to-capitalism measures by the national political system.


  1. A greater emphasis on constitutional reform is imperative so as to protect and promote social rights and to bring more transparency to the political system, as well as to bring the system closer to citizens and make it more dependent on their decisions without having to wait for new elections every four years.


  1. Bottom line here, neoliberalism’s deadly machine keeps on producing fear on a massive scale –and whenever it runs short of raw materials, it hacks off whatever hope it can find in the innermost recesses of the popular classes’ political and social life, grinding it, processing it and turning it into fear of fear. It is therefore imperative that ‘the lefts’ around the world know how to feel fear, but not fear of fear. It is further imperative that they know how to poach the few seeds of hope from the neoliberal grind and plant them in fertile soil where more and more citizens feel that they can live well, protected both from the hell of impending chaos and the siren’s call of the consumption compulsion. (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)


Isolated islands of social activism on human rights can hardly exist in a sea of capitalism


  1. Given the above, South-South solidarity must thus be forged in order to advance the struggle. Many peoples and societies in the South are today in a much better position to face the challenges, and build alternatives, than they were a few decades ago. The mask of benevolence has by now been forcefully removed from the face of the oligopolies that drive the current stage of capitalism. A historic alliance of democratic forces in the North and progressive forces in South has become critical. For that, it must overcome the long held distrust among the two, as well as that among progressive groups in the North.


  1. The left parties with their priorities set on their political goals are not equipped and are not necessarily the best vehicles to take up the human rights struggle in a sustained manner. A renewal in the current primary national political expression, i.e., the political parties and their interface with social movements is, therefore, a must. The various emancipatory forces must be brought together into a unified will, into one platform able to formulate realistic firm proposals so as to work in a non-hegemonist way to craft solidarities in the struggle for human rights (HR). This kind of broad platform must allow the building of new alliances and the formation of a large opposition social bloc committed to building authentic democracy on the long road to the fulfillment of HR.


  1. Parliamentary electoral politics can provide a critical, but alas a small base in fuelling the needed new energy in peoples struggles to carry them forward to further social progress and democratization. Parliamentary politics has been carried out at the cost of strengthening its relationship with the masses.*

*: A society respectful of HR cannot arise de novo and must arise from the rundown existing capitalist forms. This means that the struggle will still be located within the framework of the neoliberal paradigm. Let us not forget this.


  1. A democratic practice, built from below and rooted in solidarity is the way to attract new social actors in the struggle for an alternative society. Therefore, the right to information is another not-to-be-forgotten element of democratic progress, because it offers further prospects of expanding the social base for authentic democratization and socialization of the HR struggle. (S. Chachra)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-As you finish reading this, make no mistake, these seemingly abstract issues about which we write papers are matters determining the lives of millions of people. We all know that, as Benjamin’s Law says, when all is said and done, a lot more is said than done. It is, therefore, not enough to bring these issues under the spotlight; as someone else said, we need to make more light!

-At the tunnel’s end, hope is a constant flicker; the light is in us. (Jerome Koenig)

-It is well known that money has no morals …the same as many of our current leaders. (H.M. Guyot)

-Those who convince you of absurd things can make you get involved in atrocities. (Voltaire)

-If alone you cannot, together with strategic political allies you can!

Social Medicine Course in Uganda 2017

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Course Announcement

 On behalf of SocMed, we are pleased to invite health professional students to apply for the seventh annual course Beyond the Biologic Basis of Disease: The Social and Economic Causation of Illness, a social medicine immersion experience offered on-site at Lacor Hospital in Gulu, Uganda from January 3rd – 27th, 2017.  Beyond the Biologic Basis of Disease merges unique pedagogical approaches including community engagement; classroom-based presentations and discussions with a breadth of facilitators; group and self-reflection; theater, film, and other art forms; patient clerking and presentations which emphasize narrative medicine, and team projects.  These approaches create an innovative and interactive learning environment in which students participate as both learners and teachers to advance the entire class’ understanding of the interactions between the biology of disease and the myriad social, cultural, economic, political, and historical factors that influence illness presentation and social experience of disease. 

The course curriculum places considerable importance on building partnerships and encouraging students to reflect upon their personal experiences with power, privilege, race, class, and gender as central to effective partnership building in global health.  In the spirit of praxis (a model of education that combines critical reflection with action inspired by Paolo Freire), these components of the course give students the opportunity to discern their role in global health and social medicine through facilitated, in-depth conversations with core faculty and student colleagues.

In our annual Uganda course, thirty health professional students enroll each year, with half of the spaces filled by students from Ugandan medical and nursing schools, and the other half filled by international students from anywhere outside Uganda.  Credit for away-rotations can be arranged.

This course is offered through SocMed, a social justice non-profit organization working to expand the conversation on and engagement with the social determinants of health through education and movement building.  Our focus is to foster a diverse community of learners who carefully examine and strategically respond to the social and economic contexts of health.  Our aim is to provide space, opportunities and facilitation for students from around the world to build partnerships with one another in order to gain skills and practice in tackling challenging health problems.

More Information and Application Process

 Further information can be found in the attached course prospectus and on the SocMed   Please view short videos describing the course, publications related to the course, and advocacy videos created by previous students during the course by visiting the “Resources” tab on the website.

Applications are due July 31, 2016. Templates are available on the SocMed website but please note that applications this year must be submitted through an on-line format at:

If you have questions, please contact us at


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Human rights: Food for changing a thought (part 1)

Human Rights Reader 388


  1. These days, international politics is too fragmented to achieve much, especially as so many political leaders are guided by corporate interests. (H-J. Luhmann) As a consequence, nation states, rich and poor, have had less and less ability to lead independently from that influence. In the zero-sum game we live-in, compromise is hard to achieve, because the success of one party (the one with more corporate backers) is almost assured.* This is why unregulated markets continue to miserably produce consumer goods that nobody seems to need, and fail to produce in sufficient quantity and quality those badly needed, such as medicines, simply because private investment in these goods does not pay.

*: As Warren Buffett said, “There’s been a class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class as won”.


  1. The productivist paradigm above is reinforced by an all-too-complying mix:


  • of scientific knowledge (that adds the rational justification needed),
  • of ideological/political positions (proclaiming that private enterprises are more efficient than the public domain),
  • of dominant values (asserting the consumers’ absolute sovereignty and the survival of the fittest),
  • of popular myths (e.g., the one of the individualist, self-made man),
  • of false knowledge (e.g., genetically modified organisms or GMOs will improve production and combat hunger), and
  • of overvalued facts (e.g., the contributions of the dominant elites to each historical period). (adapted from Jose Luis Vivero)


Without public interest civil society engagement, politics is a top-down process that disregards grassroots reality (Katja Dombrowski)


Giving access to the right information for these groups is a vital element of democracy, and the loss of information is one of the reasons for the decline of politics and political engagement.


  1. It would be fair to say that the politics of development has been tied to the ‘conventional’ Euro/US-centric notion that basically supports capitalist patriarchal reasoning stemming from religion and spilling over to the law and to commerce. Among other, this has meant favoring the economy over the planet’s ecology, favoring capital over labor, masculine over feminine, North over South and, last but not least, favoring basic needs over human rights (HR). For quite a while now, we have been carrying out a successful political contestation that rejects these hierarchical assumptions, because such a framing is, by definition, antagonistic to the goal of protecting HR and the right to life itself.


‘Liberal politicians’ campaign from the left and rule from the right


-Politicians are good at this kind of thing, i.e., hiding the human costs of policies adopted and being polite about ideas that just have no place in polite company. (Naomi Klein)

-Liberal leftism often uses leftwing rhetoric as a cover.


  1. The concepts advanced by liberal politicians typically span between ethics and economics.** From that polarity, they specifically try to exclude ‘the political’ by labeling it merely as the domain of conquering power.*** (C. Schmitt) But, of course, there is much more to it. The great weakness of the liberal understanding of ‘the political’ is that it neglects the inherent function played by power and conflicts of power in the struggle for HR. (C. Askheim)

**: This happens largely by conflating the political discourse with the moral discourse, through the reduction of political questions to mere technical issues to be solved by experts. (C. Mouffe)

***: The theorists who want to eliminate passion from politics and argue that democratic politics should be understood only in terms of reason, moderation and consensus building show their lack of understanding of the dynamics of ‘the political’. (C. Mouffe)


  1. Mind you, no politician ever is the worst; no one ever is. For every bad leader, there is a worse one. (Except Adolf Hitler, perhaps.) As the ancient Romans would have said: “Sweet and fitting it is to lie for the fatherland.” (Uri Avneri) Truth can have many versions, especially when lies aren’t challenged. (Jerome Koenig)


  1. When consensus agreement is reached among politicians in opposing political matters, it is usually because something or someone (claim holders?) is/are left out. This unfortunately also is the ideological picture of many a negotiation in the UN –so painfully clearly when it comes to HR matters. (C. Mouffe)


Way too often, political parties of the left have evolved into mere electoral machines. (Albino Gomez)


  1. Traditional political parties have become more and more centered around personalities rather than around ideas and vision. They have lost the classical structure of party affiliation, increasingly becoming movements of public opinion, with campaigns closer to ‘brand launching’ than to political programs. A true democratic consensus is largely missing. As a result, democracy as a concept is becoming brittle and, certainly, HR are getting schortschrift. Should we, for instance, not agree that ethnic fears and greed are not pillars for democracy? Worse, a growing number of citizens are showing to be ready to accept a non-democratic system. Projecting this to the international sphere, what is clear is that we do not have even a minimum system of global governance. [Just ask yourself: Would it be possible today to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?] (Roberto Savio)


  1. It is time to realize that political disaffection with traditional political parties is not only increasing xenophobic and right wing parties, but also sapping the prestige of democracy as an undisputed modern value. In times of crisis, people are more interested in their security and work, than who is in power. Many traditional voters for the left, like workers and the unemployed, now vote for the right wing parties, and believe their promises of going back to the golden past. They are no longer interested in ideologies or political visions. They think that right and left does not exist any more. They are disillusioned with the classical party system, and they are ready to try anything new, anything that is not part of the establishment. The real problem thus is that we are in a crisis of political vision –lest of a HR vision. When ideologies are discarded as relics, and the following step is to adopt pragmatism as a solution, in fact you are making of politics a collection of ad-hoc solutions, without any final view of the society; each action is chosen as the most useful for that specific issue. That is not pragmatism; it is mere utilitarianism, one that downgrades policy to administration. Democracy is under attack, not only from ISIS and terrorism, but also from leaders elected by their citizens. In Marxists terms, this means that people have lost their sense of class and they, therefore, do not resent inequality as they did before. And this means that the political class does not feel inequality and HR are crucial issues. It is not by chance that the term ‘social justice’ has disappeared from the political debate. But how long will this last?* (R. Savio)

*: Both justice and injustice share one thing: the need for authority and sometimes (especially in the case of injustice) for force to be applied. (A. Gomez)


Of political terms, tasks and momentum in human rights work


When economics has ceased to strengthen social bonds and its prescriptions are actually further pauperizing millions, it is time to start thinking in political terms again. This is one of my cherished iron laws.


  1. To make the HR framework and approach concrete and giving it substance is a political task. Their enforcement and holding governments accountable for their HR records can only be achieved through political action. Soft approaches will not do. This is why targeting social interventions from the top down, as we still so often see, badly misrepresents complex realities, involves big costs in monitoring and destroys the political momentum for critically needed structural changes.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-The pursuit of unending power ultimately reveals an inferiority complex. (M. Fernandez)

-Certain politicians suffer with special intensity the divorce between words and facts. When they say yes, they do no. When they say more or less, they do less than more. So, facts and words never encounter each other. When in positions of power, politicians are trained to lie. They are trained to accept lies as a way of life. (adapted from Eduardo Galeano)

-Not being facetious, the secret of political success is sincerity; once you can fake that, you’ve got it made. (anonymous)

-If you tell the truth it will not be necessary to remember; lies, you have to keep in your memory to avoid contradicting yourself. (A. Gomez)

-More than ever before, we need overt political interventions, simply because economic violence is best counteracted by political antibodies backed by counter-power, and what the people’s movements around the world want is simply ‘More’, More from life, More from history and More from us.


Note: I am the first to recognize that the Human Rights Readers are often repetitive. But not so in a mechanical way! Repetition in the Readers is rather through emphasizing the same point from different angles and perspectives. It is my experience that this is the way for HR concepts to ’sink-in’ so that you, the reader, begin using these concepts in your interaction with others. That, I see, is the ultimate goal in action-oriented HR learning.


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Food for a mushy thought


Human Rights Reader 387


SDGs: “We must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences.” (Pope Francis)


  1. Unfortunately, the Sustainable Development Goal targets shied away from explicitly mentioning the need to address extreme wealth and the need to implement redistributive policies, the latter an essential tool to achieve meaningful widespread human rights (HR) enjoyment the world over.* (CESR)

*: Most of the SDGs are a monument to mushiness and wishful thinking. They give the impression that humanity has only to make a push, and the Goals will be ours. Do the statesmen and bureaucrats behind them live in an international fairyland? Think of all the resources that have gone into producing the SDGs –resources that have come out of official aid and NGO program budgets– and you may rightfully wonder if they could not have been better invested. The impression these fanfares create is that a vast effort to agree an international –sorry, global– agenda means that we are half way there. No wonder people are getting on boats and walking through barbed wire towards a better life. (Maggie Black)


  1. Pushing these Goals as an agenda for providing social safety nets as a response to an economic model that was and still is increasing inequalities is pure madness. The onus now falls squarely on public interest civil society groups to use the SDGs to make decisive course corrections. (S. Fukuda-Parr) No global agreement is going to save the day.** Our powers lie elsewhere, in our communities especially, and this is where we must take the battle.

**: When the former General Assembly President Razali Ismail of Malaysia cautioned in 1996 about the “creeping irrelevance” of big international gatherings, he was almost branded a rebel.


  1. The SDGs-pursued aim of setting up more and more ‘multi-stakeholder platforms’ is clearly ideologically loaded; in them, the private sector is given an equal space and that ends up skewing political decisions to the right. Multi-stakeholder platforms essentially risk making some UN fundamentals voluntary (!). This process is not by chance. It is part of a neoliberal plan to reduce the UN’s capacity to hinder transnational corporations in achieving their plans. The institutions involved expect to be treated as development partners and not as, in the best of cases, donors. The UN can no longer play its critical normative part in development, because it is has to chase funds and align its priorities with those of the donors –almost whoever they are. (Ted Greiner)


In short, in the SDGs, it is as if power does not exist


-The chapter on inequalities nowhere mentions that the problem of poverty is inseparable from the problem of super-wealth; that exploitation and the monopolization of resources by the few is the cause of poverty. (N. Dearden)

All the language in the SDGs frames poverty as a disease: Eradicable, no match for the ingenuity of mankind, but fundamentally nobody’s fault. It is a landscape where everyone is a hero and nobody is a villain; one in which unfair trade agreements, land grabs, structural debt relations, privatization of publicly owned utilities and tax evasion never happened. (M. Kirk)


  1. Mind you, statistical-poverty-reduction is a good deal easier than achieving the needed substantive power-related-disparity-reduction… Consider this: Being multi-dimensionally poor ridicules the (now) $1.9 USD income/capita/day set by the World Bank as a pathetically convenient catchall figure. [So we achieve $2/cap/day and then we have solved the world’s disparity/poverty problem…??].


  1. Yes, in the SDGs there are many calls to pay special attention to the most disadvantaged in society and to adequately meet the needs of mothers and their children, especially the most disadvantaged. But these calls reflect the philosophical position known as ‘prioritarianism’which is favored by all those critical of any type of egalitarianism –the core basis of HR. Prioritarianism is based on a misguided humanitarian concern, i,e., to help to improve the situation of people living in extreme poverty –but without any reference to the need to reduce the appalling disparities underlying it. According to prioritarianism, it is morally most important to help people who are worse off –but not addressing the degree of inequality in the society they live in. What is important from the moral and HR point of view is not that everyone should have the same, but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of less moral consequence whether some had more than others.


  1. Unless you understand that the-poverty-of-some flows from the-wealth-and-power-of-others, efforts to fight poverty will not truly work. As relates to the SDG on poverty, the real problem is that its wish-list comes with no historical background of how we got here, and no political strategy for how we get out of it. Furthermore, there is no acknowledgment of colonial history, of slavery, of racism, of desperately unfair terms of trade, of structural adjustment policies that flushed dozens of countries’ economies down the drain only 20 years ago. Transnational corporations are not really mentioned in the SDGs. But, face it, it is impossible to achieve the targets of the SDGs without tackling corporate power and corporate control of knowledge. Of course this lack of analysis is not accidental. The answer to world poverty cannot be found among the development professionals and celebrities in New York or Geneva. Rather, it will be found among the many thousands of activists, community organizations and social movements who are really confronting power and HR issues in the world –from below. Let us join them. (N. Dearden)


  1. No problem can be solved while political institutions do not recognize that poverty has a disparity-in-wealth-and-power cause (!).


So should we just have poverty eradication goals?


  1. The answer is a categorical No. It is extreme wealth we should be targeting. Imagine: How would attitudes look if we had spent the past 30 years asking questions about the rich: their exploitative (and often tricky) enrichment strategies, their characters, their honesty, their industriousness, their contribution to society? Poverty is not a naturally occurring germ or virus; it is anthropogenically created through wealth extraction. Any goal in the SDGs that fails to recognize this is not only unlikely to succeed, but can only be understood as a deliberate act of diversion, drawing attention away from what might work. (Z. Williams)


Economic and fiscal policies are usually not openly discussed or reported-on in human rights fora.


  1. Despite the economic growth had in the last decade, in many countries this growth has not resulted in better public services or in better access to social and economic rights or better access to the judicial system for the majorities. Fiscal policy ought to play a transformative role in improving HR and the social and economic life of all citizens. Nevertheless, tax systems continue to be mainly regressive the world over.


  1. Moreover, the criteria used to allocate public funds are anything but transparent. The way and the purposes the state provides waivers, amnisties and tax breaks negatively impacts the state’s revenue collection so that it ends up neglecting funding activities with a potential positive impact on the social and economic rights of citizens thus perpetuating inequality and poverty.


  1. Fiscal policies are public policies and are thus to be accounted for publicly –this having an immense importance in relation to the state’s HR obligations. Therefore, fiscal policies must, from their design and implementation-on, include directives derived from HR principles emanating from HR treaties and from HR jurisprudence.


  1. In his report about the relationship between extreme poverty and HR, the Special Rapporteur for Poverty and HR, Philip Alston, unequivocally called for redistributive measures to be implemented by reforming tax systems to make them decisively more progressive. These reforms are to be considered part and parcel of a new social contract that will respect all HR for society as a whole. He further emphasized that one of the most important necessary steps that the international system of HR must take is to respond in a significant way to the threat of growing extreme inequalities so that disparity reduction becomes part of the HR equation. (CESR)


  1. Finally, to make things contemporary: More than terrorism, extreme poverty causes thousands of deaths every day and leads many human beings, helpless, to abandon their places of origin. Actually, terrorism, extreme poverty …and a falling-apart environment fuel migration. (F. Mayor)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. (Albert Einstein)

-Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. (Rita Mae Brown)

-We need to stop inventing and reinventing wheels and to start putting wheels on the wagons we have. (Alan Berg)



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Food for discovering a thought


Human Rights Reader 386

The important thing about Human Rights Learning is that its key is learning by discovery. (posthumously, Urban Jonsson)


  1. Human Rights Learning (HRL) is badly needed for more and more people to start recognizing the roots of their vulnerability and for them to recognize how these are related to why and how their rights are being violated. In other words, people need to learn about the social and political determination of their multiple vulnerabilities.


  1. The ultimate aim for the badly needed HRL is to promote social mobilization based on exposing participants to for-them-new-information and to expose people to awareness raising activities. These activities will eventually lead participants to become human rights defenders and get involved in campaigns that challenge discrimination and harmful social norms and that create legal awareness and human rights (HR) literacy among peers, among service provider personnel and among groups of claim holders with a focus on women, children, and adolescents, including vulnerable and marginalized groups within these populations.


  1. We are talking here about building the capacity of claim holders to participate and to claim their rights so as to ensure that transparent and accessible mechanisms for engaging their participation are created. HRL also makes sure regular communications between claim holder groups and service provider personnel are established and/or strengthened at community, sub-national, and national levels.


  1. An example of such claim holders participation is the setting up of participatory budget processes with a view to ensuring transparency and promoting the involvement of women, children, and adolescents in monitoring the allocation and utilization of resources for their wellbeing and dignity. (Human Rights Subwork Stream of the Global Strategy on Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health)


  1. Universities are certainly teaching our students the obvious touchstones of, among other, international health, international law, security studies, development and human security, the environment, information technology, and global economics. Yet, increasingly, many of us believe our students and young professionals are missing something crucial in their education that is needed to reshape the political economy of this turbulent 21st century: the coming age of human rights.


  1. Add to this the failings of bureaucracies the world over, the mechanization of life, consumerism, education received without questioning, our ailing health systems, the absence of community work, the unresponsiveness of political parties in the wide sense of the word, the lack of attention paid to HR….these are all key themes: Where are we educating for them? (Luis Weinstein)


Is the view that human rights principles do not yet move enough people the explanation of why we have so few case studies to show for?


  1. If the above is true, when will the HR movement unite claim holders in our societies to create that irresistible force of unanimity, of passionate work/cooperation with willing duty bearers to force the minority-groups-that-hold-the-power (and the intellectuals that back them*) into accepting the HR principles and standards? (R. Bourne)

*: It is no real surprise that intellectuals and technocrats are compromised with the prevailing regime. Traditionally, intellectuals have been caught between the demands of truth and of power. By putting their talents at the service of power they can attain prestige if not also wealth. Intellectuals that aspire to play this role can safely use the rhetoric of socialism or of the welfare state as they pursue the views of a meritocracy. They attempt to prescribe a society that can take care of its problems, but without structural changes. They are thus unable to perceive their own ideological compromise that defends the staus-quo. They must, therefore, be woken up so as to contribute to setting up policies that truly benefit the masses –policies that unambiguously counter the strong tendencies of authoritarianism. (The need for HRL is clear here). Intellectuals have it in their hands to create a better future instead of limiting themselves to stand by and just observe the relentless flux of what is happening. (Noam Chomsky)


There is no power in economic poverty: Human rights learning as the response


  1. It is the role of HRL to equip participants with the power of knowing all about uneven power relations since this does not come automatically. Participants cannot really find this power in libraries. Libraries are the depositories of science and experience, but do not help us in fighting malevolent immoral power. Learning about the latter is a point to start-from in HRL, i.e., learning that power exerted coexists with inequality; making it clear to claim holders that they need to understand the realities of power, about how power is the invisible companion in social relations; how it is so often destructive. In the struggle for development, power is scarcely touched upon; at best, it somehow remains a tacit, tangential notion; at worst, it is forgotten or negated. Power disregards equality. It is imposed by force: physical force, the force of money, the force of authority, the force of arms. In all of these, the opposite roles of imposing and complying with what is imposed overrule any chance of a dialogue of equals and of informed and autonomous reflection.


  1. Power, authoritarianism, patriarchy and domination are one and the same thing. In HR work, we analyze the determinants of domination, i.e., the conditions under which the power over others comes about –at present and historically. Illegitimate authority is most often blind, totalitarian, dehumanizing. There are no ready-made prescriptions to address uneven power relations, but all involve confrontation (which does not have to be violent). Claim holders have to understand they have power; the power to question, to have their own answers, to abstain when called for, to struggle…the list is long and never ending. This is where HRL comes in. Power always has a direction. As said, counter-power is, by necessity, mostly oriented towards some kind of confrontation, towards finding the best means to bring about corrective actions that address the HR of majorities. Leaders that engage in organizing humanizing counter-power actions need charisma (a feature that frequently goes with power…); they need to be conscious of the finitude of human limits (but push to stretch those limits); they must be proponents of human rights for all; they must be courageous. (Luis Weinstein)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



It would help HRL tremendously if all UN agencies and national HR Committees would convert the Concluding Comments of UN HR treaty bodies into visual form (with limited text), and provide for a budget for government and public interest civil society to translate both the written and visual version into local languages, and broadcasting on radio and television. (R. K. Murthy)



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Food for a denunciatory thought


Human Rights Reader 385

With a few fast clicks of the mouse on a computer in a beautiful air-conditioned office, in a few seconds, a small number of persons can (and do) deprive several million human beings of the basis of their existence, their livelihood and their human rights. Accepting this as collateral damage is against all ethics; it is criminal. (Jean Claude Junker)


The powerful exploit enormous advantages


For those in power, the money they amass is never enough; with all the notoriety and success it can buy them, it also becomes the cause of their downfall… for having become too rich. (Leonardo Padura)


  1. The powerful can and do skillfully game the system quite systematically skewing the flow of resources towards those who already have much more than their fair share.* Obviously, this art of deception is not linked to a lack of trying, but to a lack of scruples. (F. Manes) In fact, every day, the macroeconomic figures deceptively made public have become the best way to hide social and human rights (HR) realities and are thus becoming less and less realistic. (Roberto Savio) Let us face it: Economic theory is, by far, not the politically most relevant branch of science …and GDP does NOT reflect inequalities in society. As deplorable is the excessive ‘mathematization’ of economics since the 1970s. Assuming the neutrality of ‘rational’ economic mathematical models is not only gratuitous, but a fallacy.

*: Our curse actually comes from Adam Smith who reasoned: “I am inherently self-interested –I am human”.


  1. As widely and uncritically accepted, the discipline of economics is defined as the discipline that handles the allocation of scarce resources. This assumes not only equality in the access to goods, but also assumes a ‘dose of goodness’ –the latter plenty scarce in the capitalist human character.* (Frances M. Lappe) What we are left with then is that, to change course, we have to change the discourse. First, we must banish ‘scarcity’ and ‘shortage’ as descriptors of the global economic situation, never using them without the modifier ‘man-made’.

*: Think about the maxim that says that capital never is patriotic. (Alberto Bryce Echenique)


  1. Furthermore, since there is no such a thing as a ‘free market’, we banish this term as well.** As we can indeed document, markets work equitably only if they are deliberately kept fair, open, and competitive by democratically arrived-at and enforced rules. What is killing such effective markets –take for instance the case of food– is the dogma: markets work on their own. This myth allows wealth-to-accrue-to-wealth, generating a veritable monopoly situation. Never forget: it is monopoly power within markets that kills openness, fairness and competition –the values for which markets have long been wrongly praised for.

**: While free market ideology is premised on limiting state interference in the

workings of an unbridled marketplace, human rights are founded upon the

notion of a capable and robust state with duties to uphold human dignity. (Olivier de Schutter)


  1. Yet another confusing concept we must bar from our lips is ‘market failure’; this, because market failure is the logical consequence of a particular kind of market, one primarily driven to generate the highest returns to already existing wealth. In short, open, fair, competitive markets cannot exist outside true democracy, i.e., being answerable to citizens. Such a democracy must be freed enough from private greed influence so it can keep markets really and truly open.


  1. And then there is the concept of ‘financialization’: it is rightfully used to mean profiting-without-producing. It reflects the rise of financial profit, in part extracted directly from households through financial expropriation mechanisms. Finance exploits us all.*** (C. Lapavitsas)

***: Take, for instance, ‘accumulation by dispossession’ which relates to the mercantilization (grabbing) of land that removes peasants from their land and to the financialization of whole economies. It also relates to the massive private appropriation of our natural resources and to the dispossession of indigenous people. To this, we can add the ecological dimension pertaining to the myriad local environmental disasters already in a state of no return. (E. Gudynas)


  1. Only by shifting the dominant discourse from the private sphere to the HR arena will a whole new world of economic, political and social innovations open up. Unlike what the casino economy pursues, HR are about cooperation, sharing, stewardship, equity, equality, dignity, sustainability, collectiveness, embeddedness and direct democracy from local to global. (adapted from Jose Luis Vivero)


What about international trade?


Fifty years ago, international treaties mostly had mandatory clauses. Right now, they are mostly voluntary …except for trade agreements that are mandatory. (WTO)


  1. The ‘global-value-chains’-trade-narrative is nothing more than a deceptive effort to sell to developing countries (and their people demanding social fairness, equality and HR), the discredited trickle-down theories that enable a US-EU transnational corporate stranglehold over markets of developing countries. (C. Raghavan)


  1. Transnational corporations (TNCs) use free trade agreements to discriminatingly expand their domination and monopolistic aims, as they attempt to ride out and survive the capitalist crisis. All this, they do, not only not showing respect for nature and for human rights, but actually destroying nature and trampling HR in their quest for new lucrative markets. As a consequence, millions of people are affected and have to abandon their homesteads and end up migrating to industrially developed countries. (La Via Campesina)


  1. Without going into further details here, let it be said that the way in which trade transactions are governed means that corporate entities have greater weight in terms of securing their rights, even when these spurious ‘rights’ conflict with universally accepted and ratified human rights: Think Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP. (J. Ghosh)


The future is already here, and it is unevenly distributed (S. Gibson)


  1. In the period after World War II, capitalism was much better regulated, taxes were higher, but people did better and the economy grew faster; even though trade was more restricted, companies thrived; even though Wall Street commissions were fixed and higher than today, the financial sector accounted for a much smaller share of GDP and of profits than it does now –and all this then with unions granted a seat in the table. In short, every group was better off in the US yesterday than today, except the 1%. When capitalism was restrained by tougher rules and regulations, it did better. This not being an endorsement of it, the argument is that capitalism does better when its hands are tied, is more competitive and is less cut-throat. Highly regulated economies are healthier, grow faster and accommodate the needs of people better than more laissez-faire forms of capitalism. (D. Kotz)


  1. Sixty years later, under full-blown neoliberalism, political institutions have lost their gloss. No political party has any longer a youth movement. They are perceived more and more as self-referent, considering citizens just as an electorate; they are seen as more part of the system in power than spokesmen of their citizens. Electorates are voting on the basis of political nostalgia and lack of security. Facing an uncertain future, the dream to go back to a better past is strong. In the last decade, the cost of electoral campaigns in Europe has increased by 47%. In other words, more and more of us consider that we live now in a democracy that is turning (or has turned) into a plutocracy. The regional organizations, like the African Union, ASEAN or the Organization of American States, are notoriously toothless. (Roberto Savio)


One of the most worrisome aspects of neoliberalism fostering privatization in a hurry is the dominance of capital (profits) over labor (wages)


The neoliberal economy considers precarious jobs as natural, social inequality as a legitimate reality, the market as the sole basis for societal development, and the state as inefficient and a brake to the private sector. (Roberto Savio)


  1. Scorecards need to be kept on how fast different countries are privatizing. Privatization is really easy –all one has to do is give away the assets to one’s friends, expecting a kickback in return. But all too often no scorecard is kept on the number of people who are/were pushed into poverty, or the number of jobs destroyed versus those created, or on the increase in the sense of insecurity or the feeling of powerlessness of many. The disjunction between the HR values of society and the ideology of the self-regulated market is clear today. Last but not least, the freedom to move capital in and out of a country at will is a freedom that some exercise, at enormous cost to others. (Joseph Stiglitz)


Corporate capture represents a veritable ‘life grab’ (Flavio Valente)


Power is something that some people grab and then too often maintain by the way of force (think about many a long lasting head of state that has done whatever he wanted and who took power through a coup or a putsch). (Alfredo Bryce Echenique)


  1. The power and the impunity of TNCs through their use of a ‘democracy of bribery’ continuously represses the voices of the people in all kinds of policies and legislative processes at multiple levels. Democracy shrinks while the governing classes together with TNCs seek further private profits. (La Via Campesina)


  1. And then there is corporate social responsibility: CSR is not something benign that helps companies end harmful practices. Corporate Social responsibility is a carefully developed strategy that deliberately diverts public attention from the need to regulate corporations effectively and ensure accountability for HR abuses. (Nathalie Beghin) We have to deconstruct and counter corporate social responsibility arguments especially when they claim corporations are backers of HR.


  1. For many people, it is easier, safer and more comfortable to live in a world of delusion, particularly when this delusion requires no effort to seek out and understand truths about corporate behavior that may prove unpalatable. The delusion is reinforced: there is a persistent beaming of elite/corporate propaganda. Questioning the delusion is the challenge. The rhetoric of the modern empire describes the global system as ‘consisting of liberal-democratic nation-states, connected by more or less free markets and ruled by international law’. This, of course, masks the reality that the United States imperial elite considers itself the vanguard of the global order with the right to violate state sovereignty and to control markets (including via corporate-written ‘free trade’ agreements), as well as to be above international law. In short, territorial control is less important than the control of markets, capital, labor, and resources. It thus seems logical to critique and resist the US imperial world order and this cannot happen if we listen to those cowardly and servile individuals who work in the corporate media on behalf of the empire. Caveat: Choosing where you get your news from is important. (R. Burrowes)


  1. Bottom line here, so-called sovereign consumers do not exist. We are all easily manipulated by, among other, the Big Agri-Food Industry and all sorts of public relations specialists. (Jose Luis Vivero)


One more time


More than two millennia ago, in The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote that most battles are won or lost by the choice of battlefield, long before they are fought.


  1. How can a collection of separate local efforts build anything close to the kind of large-scale, international change required to confront the many global crises the world is facing? The answer is that, in isolation, they cannot. Our challenge continues to be to build a global movement of connected local movements, so that their impact becomes vastly more than the sum of their separate parts. Regional and local governments across the world are already building those collaborations and linkages, through a set of formal agreements. The pace is just too slow.


  1. Activist and empowered communities must also find similar ways to join forces. Working together means many things. It means sharing strategies and learning from one another about what it takes to win public support and succeed in political action. It means joining together to take-on common strategic adversaries, including corporations: they do their damage not just in one community or one country, but in many at the same time. It also means taking inspiration from one another. HR activism is hard, and in the face of a deepening crisis it would be easy for an entire movement to collapse under the weight of pessimism. Our passions, victories, and commitment must be shared in new and powerful ways to keep the movement’s hope solid and alive.


  1. And a departing word: Global summits (think SDGs), so far removed from regular citizens, are never going to be the place for us to win solid HR action, so we should not be surprised by the inadequacies coming out of them. Our powers lie elsewhere, especially in grassroots communities with their not-yet-claiming claim holders; so this is where we must take the struggle. Our future will rely not on a single global accord, but on a wide constellation of diverse and creative advances across the world, that we win together, arm in arm, and community by community. (J. Shultz)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-We have to see the world as full of humans, not full of ‘econs’. (R. Thaler)

-We are caught in a vicious circle of wanting and acquiring more and more crap. (anonymous)

-Money makes people grow in front of other people, and it does so in direct proportion to the envy it causes in the latter. (Alfredo Brice Echenique)



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Food for a sharper thought


Human Rights Reader 384



Democracy is in recession (Thomas Friedman)


-Our current ‘democracies’ are nothing more than the government of a minority throwing overboard the human rights of a majority. (adapted from Thomas Jefferson)

-Have you ever stopped to think why so many of those struggling merely to survive still do vote against their own interests?


  1. In the last 20 years, representative democracy has been losing its appeal. Shortsighted pragmatism has led to a loss of long-term vision and politics has become merely administrative, i.e., a democracy where only a few bureaucrats take decisions. Political leaders work increasingly to solve local administrative and economic difficulties and, less and less, to solve global problems. All this indicates that politics at a national level is no longer able to carry out its fundamental role of regulating society for the greater good of its citizens, for a harmonious, just and fair society. We are before a fundamental problem of increasingly diminishing democracy as it was understood up till now. (Roberto Bissio)


  1. Some of us live in a ‘formal democracy’, others not. In either situation, more and more citizens want changes. In that pursuit, human rights (HR) are tacitly or explicitly the desired aim, the aspiration to pursue, the ambition to conquer. (L. Fries) But truly expliciting the aim of such a pursuit in deeds is where the current challenge lies. Take, for example, the fact that democracy continues to deprive women of gender equality and, as a consequence, in practice, renders them second-class citizens. (M. Matamala) It is not a matter of evolving here, but a matter of re-directing. Evolution maintains the ambiguity of where the process is going; only re-directing democracy will contribute to a fresh reflection on what the entire enterprise is about. (George Kent, David Parker)


And then come the paradoxes


  1. Rich countries tell developing countries about the importance of democracy, but when it comes to the issues they are most concerned with (issues that affect their livelihoods), i.e., the economy, poor countries are told: “The iron laws of economics give you little or no choice so you must cede key economic decisions to an independent central bank”. But, almost always, these banks are dominated by representatives of the financial establishment. Then, to ensure these banks act in the interests of the financial community, developing countries are told to focus exclusively on inflation –never mind jobs or growth…..or HR. As neocolonialism seemingly ‘empowers’ people in the former colonies with ‘democracy’ with one hand, it takes it away with the other. (Joseph Stiglitz)


  1. Bottom line here: A nation that surrenders to moral conformism and to a way-too-outdated political system is, in fact, selling its sovereignty for a mere plate of lentils. (Maria Duenias)


We live in a non-democratic world that will veto our attempts to change anything of substance.


-Democracy is far more than just putting a cross on a piece of paper once every four or five years.

-Are cultures that are Western Educated, Industrialized and Rich really Democratic? (i.e., WEIRD?) (J. Henrich)


  1. Democracy means we all take responsibility and do not leave it to others, not to parliamentarians or parties, not to self-seeking politicians –whose first priority is to vote themselves next year’s pay increase. There is thus no quick fix through electoral reform. As HR activists, we aim to change people’s minds, to change the ideology of the working class and to recruit more workers to the unions and citizens to social movements. (Will Podmore)


  1. We are talking here about a participatory democracy in which citizens have power in meeting life’s essentials, a democracy lived as an ongoing process of realizing human dignity, justice (more so social justice*) and HR. Reasonably so, these values are to be understood as intrinsic to democracy but, as we all know, many consider ‘democracy’ as merely a means for domination. Democracy today is reduced to anti-democratic forms of privately held government that hides or represses today’s courageous uprisings worldwide. It is money that heavily drives political decision-making. This is why participatory democracy needs to be recognized and fostered; an apt shorthand for its aim is ‘dignity for all’. New protocols are needed for bringing the people affected by public top-down choices into direct participation wherever and whenever public policies are decided. (Frances M. Lappe)

*: The key question of whether the redistribution of resources beyond the poverty line is or is not an issue of justice is not a scientific question. One single true answer cannot be found. It is an ideological and political question that has to be discussed and agreed upon in a democracy. (posthumously, Urban Jonsson)


  1. What about direct democracy then?: Would we have to have the people vote on every question? Does not that empower everyone equally? The answer is: No –it can actually disempower people, because simple voting isolates individuals**, treating them as consumers-of-political-advertising or as followers-of-elite-backed-political-candidates and their electoral machines***, rather than empowering groups of people to develop viewpoints and solutions and to select candidates collectively. (D. Rogers)

**: Our societies are only allegedly permeated by a ‘what-can-I-do?’ attitude. For example, people passively and permissively accept corruption and do nothing to stop it. (Z. Bauman)

***: When you look at the cost of the presidential campaign of the United States, which will be close to four billion dollars, and you learn that a small pool of rich donors dominates election giving (130 families and their businesses have provided more than half of the money raised through June 2015 by Republican candidates) you would rightfully think that legitimacy is questionable. In the United States, the majority does not rule. (Roberto Bissio)


  1. And what about the role of street protests in system change?: Did not the Occupy Movement kick the discussion of inequality and HR into high gear in the US, just as the earlier anti-WTO/IMF protests put the critique of globalization on the map? Yes, there is no question that loud and media-genic protests can bring issues to the forefront. But in order to have lasting impact, street protests do need to be coupled with democratic political leadership that can clearly articulate the central arguments and can come up with compelling alternatives capable of bringing an inclusive group of interests together into an effective power base. Beyond all the shouting of slogans, what ultimately counts is real accomplishments that make a difference to people on the ground. Only then will we see system change. Nothing short of building up a people’s movement for systemic change and HR, i.e., reclaiming the decision-making process, replacing the system, and overturning the operating worldview will rid us of the grip of plutocracies in so many countries. (D. Rogers) The smiles of victory have to change sides!


A specter is haunting Europe: the specter of democracy –we are told****


****: I would paraphrase: A specter is haunting the world –the specter of HR.


  1. As we have seen, democracy can be crushed, not using tanks, but using banks. Banks are not really interested in getting their money back; they could not care less. They instead insist on democracy’s and sovereignty’s surrender. As they did in Greece, they purport that elections cannot be allowed to change anything; that democracy ends where debt insolvency begins. They try to do something that cannot be done, namely to de-politicize money. But when politics and money are de-politicised, democracy dies. And when democracy dies, prosperity is confined to the very few. The current dominant global political and economic dogma, in which money is used and abused as a commodity, is, in short, a catastrophe. To counter this dystopia the people must believe again that democracy and HR are not a luxury afforded to creditors and declined to debtors. (Yannis Varoufakis)


  1. Democracy is way too often perceived as synonymous with economic and social growth. But is it? And if yes, for whom? In fact, there is now a growing school of thought about the shortcomings and inefficiency of such a democracy. Is it also a fact that the legitimacy of the political system behind growth is more and more under question? (Roberto Bissio)


  1. What is indeed new is that in the last years, very conservative institutions, like the International Monetary Fund have been warning that the growth of a social gap actually constitutes a brake on economic growth. This is accompanied by a polarization in politics, and the constant growth of extremist and xenophobe parties, which now gather votes from workers and the less fortunate who once voted to the left. And this is completely changing the political landscape. The democratic system took its legitimacy from its ability to support values like justice, solidarity, HR and the general development of society. There are no historical precedents to tell us what will happen when citizens go into a social and economic decline over decades, and when youth do not see a clear future. But there are historical precedents to tell us that a society in crisis easily slips into populist and authoritarian regimes, especially if the rich elites support that road. It should by now be clear to all of us that the system is broken, and clearly needs fixing. But will this declining democracy, with so few true statesmen and so many ambitious politicians, be able to provide the fix? This the question that we need to address…
(Roberto Bissio)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Democracy starts with dialoguing with those who think differently. (Jose Domingo Peron)

-How difficult it is for us is to bring together theory with practice, criticism and self criticism with protagonism, endless talking with attentive listening, separation with integration of what is happening around us. (Julio Monsalvo)

-The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant; it is just that they know so much that is not so. (Ronald Reagan)

-As a true affirmation of independence, a wo/man must be free not only to think, but also to act –not letting the-desire-to-engage prevail over de-facto-engaging, now, to make meaningful changes. We cannot live in an eternal present, accepting things as they appear (i.e., unmovable) and not as they really are (changeable). (Pablo Simonetti)



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Food for a willful thought


Human Rights Reader 383


-I have been impressed with the urgency of doing; knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough. (Leonardo da Vinci)

-Big minds have a will; small ones only have wishes. (Albino Gomez)


Tomorrow must be more than just another today


  1. In development work, it is actually the result of a willful effort by our leaders –those with the right ideals– to effect change by combining youthful conviction with a desire to test out their ideas in the real world.*

*: Reality is itself in perpetual movement though. I am what I am, but I am also what I do to change what I am. (Eduardo Galeano)


  1. Let’s face it: Some development workers go through their work as taking a nice walk, constantly distracted by this and that, or as being immersed in a fictional world. They tend to avoid or refuse to think in depth about what is utterly wrong in our world (or in what they do…). They live as if only the small window of reality they view is valid. They negate other dimensions of reality.** (Luis Weinstein)

**: Have we become prisoners of ‘the culture of impotence’? I suffer with special intensity the divorce between words and facts. When you say yes, you do no. When you say more or less, you do less. Somehow, too often facts and words never encounter each other. We are trained to lie to ourselves. We are trained to accept such lies as a way of life. (Eduardo Galeano)


  1. So, are such colleagues just going to be a caricature of a development professional in country X where there are no activists and no respect for human rights (HR)? This is a bad metaphor of a strange reality, because then they have to admit they are living a small life in a country full of people forced to live insignificant existences and progressively with truncated dreams. Like that, they/you never arrive at the truth –and that does not even get to bother them/you… (Leonardo Padura) Passivity in the face of unequal forces is anything but impartial. (The Guardian)


Rightful decisive confrontation does not determine who is right — only who is left


  1. Being an activist does not mean being a danger to your country; activists are actually a warning to those whose narrow-minded view of the role of HR in development is a danger to their country. The kind of development-for-the-sake-of-development philosophy must thus be criticized. Intellectual honesty and openly questioning injustice is indispensible. Maligning those who question and challenge injustice is a sign of intolerance on the part of governments that have a difficulty in separating what-is-good-for-all from what-is-good-just-for a-few. In short, the value of HR activists exerting opposition must never diminish. (T.J.S. George)


  1. The above highlights some further attributes of being a good HR activist:
  • HR activists must be able to distinguish the intentional from the circumstantial, the permanent from the passing, the important from the trivial, the objective from the subjective. (Pablo Simonetti)
  • HR activists are not to be alpha fe/males; they must place themselves under the orders of the majority. They cannot get/achieve everything they want, but if they start out hard-faced and independently tough, the results are usually bad. (P. Iglesias)
  • HR activists do not only think of reverting specific HR violations; they also reflect on the ability of HR instruments to target the structural causes of those problems. (Eduardo Arenas)
  • The last thing HR activists want to do is to humiliate those that oppose HR –but it is not totally out of their list if absolutely needed. Typically, a HR activist would say: “I didn’t say I was blaming you, I said it was your fault”.
  • Today’s HR activists are agents of profound transformations at the front line of emancipatory politics. (A. Badiou) (Big words, but true…).
  • When activists envision solutions in bleak times, these may sometimes seem like dreams. But dreams mark beginnings so that there is movement forward inserting a sense of hope in the air. (D. Parra) Ergo, in dreams begins responsibility. (W.B. Yeats). and
  • Not facetiously, if HR activists would agree with those that oppose HR, they would both be wrong.


  1. Therefore, defiance is a way of life for HR activists and good communications are key to successfully protest. If they try to do it through the press, what they want to communicate will be blacked out, censored, filtered or plainly ignored. When the system is so closed and self-replicating that it renders claim holders powerless, the first step in gaining power is not to appear like they have no power, i.e. not concede their powerlessness. So, in comes the internet: It tells all of us there are urgent issues; it brings us worrisome information, at the speed of light. But does this motivate you? With very few exceptions the internet does not propel you from virtual reality to reality. It will motivate some people to connect and act, but not enough people connect. (Ralph Nader)


The challenge we face is to set up a community of practice, i.e., to create a whole network of interested, motivated and committed activists working on human rights.


In other words, the challenge of HR activists is to bring together the demands of different groups of claim holders and focusing on how they can be used to oppose the common enemy. (D. Howarth)


  1. In order to build our movement towards equality and dignity, young leaders defending HR (HR activists in-the-making) need to be watching both for challenges and opportunities. They must follow and analyze ongoing contradictory trends in their countries’ policies, i.e., those that negatively affect claim holders. Interpreting these trends is not necessarily based on rigorous research, but rather on applying their political understanding of the situation.***

***: Take for instance the movements of people who want to deny women’s inalienable right to sexual and reproductive health and undermine evidence-based arguments with impunity. Activists must debunk the claims of these anti-choice activists who want to send us back in time when it comes to women’s choices. (E. Palomino)


Getting there


  1. It is impossible to transform yourself into a HR activist until you join a larger movement for economic and social justice led by the oppressed and exploited. What is not often enough talked-about are things we can collectively do, together, to support positive change for our communities. Take, for instance, fighting for our collective rights against exploitation and for building social networks of resistance against alienation and for unity: There can be no neutrality here. How can we support each other to take a stand for social justice in a conservative environment? We need to outline our strategy to build the actual massive organization that brings together the people’s counter-power necessary to achieve the needed structural transformation(s). Until we have successfully organized claim holders and historically-marginalized communities to build counter-power and claim greater control, it will be impossible to do away with the current ineffective and unfair development practices.**** Being persistent not only means that we learn, we adapt, and we make changes where we need-to based on our practical experience, but it also means that we do not give up on our long-term vision. (Marta Roberts)

****: The Masaai people of Kenya say that a man alone is worth nothing: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.


  1. The essence of the problem is that still most people and organizations representing yet-to-be-mobilized claim holders are asking elites to take action on their behalf rather than taking action themselves. Not only is this a fearful and powerless approach, it reinforces the widespread delusions that elites have the power in this regard and that they are responsive to claim holders’ pleas. Neither of these is true. Claim holders can and must exert the needed counter-power since elites only respond when claim holders create the circumstances that compel them to do so –and not otherwise. Hence, it is the actions that claim holders take, as individuals, as communities and as organized groups that generates the outcomes we want in HR work. (R. Burrowes)


  1. As nonviolent HR activists, we do not ask elites (or their governments and corporations) to change their behavior. Instead, we ‘invite’ them to respond decisively to circumstances that we create in order to compel change. If we invite yet others to participate in the actions we are taking, elites have no choice but to act as claim holders demand. So, activists have the choice to either spend their time lobbying elites to legislate, or they can systematically invite/inspire those around them to do the same and force changes in behavior and deeds. (R. Burrowes)
  2. Equally, TNCs are not yet feeling anywhere near enough ‘claim holders pressure’ to change their behavior. (This, irrespective of the rhetoric some of these corporations use in various international fora claiming corporate progress is being made). ***** Corporations are actually resisting any change that does not reflect an advantage in the markets in which they operate. In essence, those who are scared and powerless will either do nothing or they will waste their time lobbying elites and their governments and corporations to change without applying the pressure that compels either to respond with deeds. Claim holders and their leaders must understand the principles of non-violent action and how to use it to leverage power effectively. (R. Burrowes)

*****: Elites keep cooking up the statistics to make us believe we are steadily progressing.


  1. Bottom line and to keep in mind: In organizational work, sharing and communicating a vision instills an ambition, not a true understanding of the process(es) by which it can be achieved. This is done through a narrative. Visions are static, narratives are stories by which people understand a process of change. Good HR activists can capture tough messages in stories. Narratives have to be disseminated. Stories spread through networks. Success in spreading a narrative depends on reaching a small group of influential people. Building a critical mass of citizens understanding is not achieved through press statements, but by crafting narratives, by devising smart presentations of the basic facts and by understanding networks. Otherwise, people are overly inclined to accept arguments that best serve their narrower interests. (P. Collier)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Beware: Success hides behind each failure (and failure behind each success). (A. Gomez) If I am not failing, you should fire me. Take risks. Activists must be willing to increase their risk threshold.

-There are those who fight for one day, and they are good. There are those who fight for one year, and they are better. There are those who fight for many years, and they are very good. But there are those who fight their entire lives: they are the irreplaceable ones. (Bertolt Brecht)

-“Do you know something, son? We move slowly; like in the processions. But processions always move forward; they never go backwards. And the most important: We all go together and we leave nobody along the road”. (A retired woman in Córdoba, Argentina)