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Food for a campaigner’s thought


Human Rights Reader 264


In dedicated human rights work, it is not about being a bit more leftist or a bit more centrist than others, but it is to offer a viable and better perspective for the future –one in which human rights activists are willing to engage-with actively. Activists do thus dare to boldly and fearlessly presenting the problems at hand, as well as presenting the fairest and most equitable way to solve them. This often implies adopting a matching ideology* This is why good human rights activists are feared more by their foes than by their followers. 29

*: In human rights work, there is no zone of an ‘ideological zero’.


[Note: These two Reader do not intend to be ‘self-congratulatory’ by aggrandizing the image and the role of human rights activists. I here only explore what human rights activists do, can-do, have-to-do and need-to-do –adaptable to the specific settings they work in].


1. As human rights activists, we do engage in combating the inertia rooted in many of our fellow development workers (including those that do not believe in anything, or that believe that everything is useless). But at the same time, in our work, tolerance wins over rigidity and over personal interests. [Note here that tolerance should not mean or be understood as indifference, but as an attitude, one not avoiding conflict (B. Sarlo)].


2. We all do strongly feel we have to act in the name of a vision that is motivating, that goes along with our moral duty, that is not rooted in any dogma. We all also strongly feel that we cannot just cross our arms and do nothing.


3. We further do call on supporters of the idea of human rights (HR) to change their own rules of engagement by switching the political outlook of their work.  For example, turning a researcher into a HR activist involves a reorientation towards a social and political engagement rather than towards academic achievement; it also requires the researcher acquiring new skills, such as building multidisciplinary HR teams and pursuing a different range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural processes and outcomes. For this to become a reality, researchers have to, first, stop being embarrassed of exposing damning evidence.


4. The challenge we do face every day is to try to share the HR belief system that better interprets the shortcomings and injustices of our contemporary world ….and using the HR framework we can do (and do) this by using the HR language in the logic of the possible. (R. Piglia)


5. As HR activists, we do have the ambition of power for the HR movement; it is not enough to complain all the time; we do always project to the future and do aim at surpassing any limited universe of action that does not change power relations and their reproduction. (Not being facetious here, tactically speaking, “between divorce and divorce, it is sometimes OK to be married with power”). Things are complex, but that does not push us to work in small little corners; our horizon is the future… (A. de Negri)


6. We do thus create circumstances for change –circumstances in which, for a change, somebody else now wins and somebody else now loses.


7. We also sometimes do assume the role of proxies for active citizens groups or individuals –advocating on their behalf, particularly on behalf of those who must remain invisible.


8.If we do underestimate people’s no-nonsense intelligence, HR principles will never be respected in society –our own ideas will then risk working against the realization of our ideals. That is why not departing from where people actually are is a grave mistake.



9. As HR activists, we do not deny the complexity of the political and social facts behind what we are struggling for; we also do not believe that ours is an absolute truth. (We do admit that error is always possible). What we ask for is for people to look more lucidly and less arrogantly at the bleak,  discriminating social and political reality that surrounds them.


10. We do not pretend to be ‘illuminators’ by defining the objectives to be pursued in HR work. But we do aim at performing a protagonist’s role in the search for ways out.


11. We do not fear confrontation. Confrontation has been with us for time immemorial: confrontation between force and weakness, between the future and the past, between unity and disintegration, between good and evil.


12. And finally here, we do not confuse obfuscation with firmness.



13. Overcoming many barriers and being humble about what the HR-based framework can deliver, HR activists still need to find a way to primarily fight the reluctance (or incapability) of many to understand that their Welt-Anschaung needs to change towards a HR perspective. Despite all the barriers, policies can be steered towards HR principles **.

**: But HR activists are also keenly aware that policy change does not always lead to actual change.


14. The ‘climate’ or outlook in policy-formulation-processes is constantly changing, so HR activists need to continually adapt their strategies in response to this, especially as donors are under increasing pressure to justify their spending –and even sometimes to adopt the HR-based framework in their ODA/aid. This requires active negotiations and partnership building. It is a necessary investment to engage with ongoing processes and to make sure the funding available is channeled in a HR-responsive way. Therefore, HR activists need to make the monitoring-of-opportunities-to-influence-policy a full-time job. This said, in a way, the role of HR activists is one of ‘advocate-guardians’. But, beware, being advocate-guardians may cause tensions for HR activists arousing the ire of local authorities. (M. Clarke)


15. Furthermore, to increase their understanding of HR issues, HR activists need to work on developing personal bonds in the direction of becoming globally connected***. To raise awareness, develop common agendas and joint solutions, as well as to plan needed collaborations, they need to develop skills of leadership, of personal expression and of communication; they need to listen and learn more about/from  people’s ideas to intimately understand their needs so as to integrate them into a HR-based process. Furthermore, to make action plans together with claim holders, they need to foster this group’s self-esteem by fostering action-oriented HR working groups that can start placing demands, can set agendas for further learning, and can actively engage in mobilization activities in their own communities and beyond.

***: Global issues do have a local and individual dimension. Claim holders must understand they can have an influence on global issues and vice versa; they need to know what they can learn from and contribute to the global experience –and how.


16. Finally here, HR activists need to know when to blend-in as opposed to taking an adversarial role any time it is needed (e.g., when state responsiveness is weak or non-existent).



17. Among many other, here are some practical tips human rights activists can follow in their advocacy:

  • Invoking the principles of ideology, enthusiasm, commitment and of social justice without emphasizing good organization, is not enough.
  • The use of compelling human stories/testimonies that present current concerns using personal examples is of prime value in HR work.
  • Placing demands on online web platforms and on email products have proven to have an impact as have framing messages in ways that better suit target audiences, making presentations in public fora and partaking in petitions or special drives.
  • Also, messages are to reach duty bearers through multiple routes and channels.****

****: For instance, periodic lunches with journalists, with legal activists, with parliamentarians, with members of HR commissions, with members of the judiciary, of traditional, of religious and of women’s organizations, with civil society coalitions and with the media are a tactic to be considered seriously.


18. Bottom line, as HR activists, we all the time keep asking ourselves: what are we doing here? What have we done so far? What do we need too do better? …and we keep thanking those anonymous voices that keep driving us.


Claudio Schuftan in Ho Chi Minh City


Adapted from A. Gomez, Tiempo de Descuento, Editorial El Fin de la Noche, Buenos Aires, 2009; A. Gomez, Despojos y Semillas, Editorial Belgrano, Buenos Aires, 1997;  Health Insights, IDS, Issue 78, Oct 2009; D+C, 36:12, Dec. 2009, Development in Practice, 19:8, 2009; and Z. Acevedo Diaz, La Dama de Cristal, Fondo Editorial Casa de las Americas, La Habana, 1999.




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