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Food for a campaigner’s thought


Human Rights Reader 316


-As much as it is criminal to promote a war that is avoidable, it is also criminal not to promote a struggle that is inevitable. (Jose Marti)

-I can only wait when I am struggling in my waiting. (Paulo Freire)

– Courage is not lack of fear, but the ability to act while facing fear.


It a’int only what we do. It’s the way that we do it. What’s it all about?  (J. Koenig)


-Moi, j’avais une lampe; et toi la lumière. Qui a vendu la mèche? (J. Prévert)

-If I yell, it is because, if I don’t, collective silence will make more harm. (Celaya)

-What is the responsibility of the engaged intellectual? Yelling and denouncing.


1. For social activists to evaluate everyday problems and, with their constituents, to identify matching goals and actions is not enough; the final objective is to figure out how to get there, through what processes. For that to happen, a veritable paradigm shift is now deemed indispensable so as to allow joint decision-making of what needs to be done, what not, and how to do it. (A hint for the post 2015 process?). In the search for the best way to bring about this shift, the social, economic, political and environmental determinants to be addressed are many –and some are well known and indeed addressable and manageable.* Changing these determinants, and addressing urgent human rights (HR) issues, often means stepping on the toes of those who will resist change when it touches their (mostly non-deserved) already acquired privileges; these groups will, to be sure, defend their interests aggressively. The need for the active involvement of those-affected-who-become-conscious-of-the-‘abnormality’-of-their-situation (i.e., claim holders) is not questionable any longer. That is the only way forward despite any doubts, obstacles and/or risks you hear or read about. Steps in the wrong direction can, with high probability, mean failure.** A political consensus on this may not be easy to achieve yet, but needs to be built. Under conditions of underdevelopment, both human rights activists and political leaders face difficulties in planning for the future; politicians get involved in everyday politics and the struggle for power –they go for short term results; HR activists, in principle, do not. Politicians thus put the resolution of the big social and HR problems in the back burner; simplistic, immediate and partial solutions prevail. That is what the HR activists are mainly up against. (F. Monckeberg)

*: What many activists still too often neglect in their analyses and actions is the structural causes of the development problems they are trying to remedy . They thus end up with recommendations for capacity building that may not consider concrete actions on the social, political and HR determinants of those development problems at hand. Knowing is still far from doing.

**: A caveat: Success can start with failure. Moreover, too optimistic expectations can lead to a collapse; and also, a loss of confidence can cause an overreaction in the undesired direction. (F+D, 48:2, June 2011)


2. For the above reasons, the most effective HR activists are the ones that, having clear what needs to be done, are capable to translate it into terms that highlight the political benefits that those-who-must-take-the-ultimate-decisions (i.e., duty bearers) will eventually reap. This is part of the responsibility of HR activists. Windows of opportunity do open for this to happen; periods of elections are one of such to put petitions in the political agenda of candidates. Activists have to make the issues of HR winning-issues-for-being-elected. This may mean showing flexibility to adapt (but not forego!) HR demands to the respective ‘politics’ of different candidates so that nobody can rally against or object genuine HR demands. (Suffice it to say that some ideologies are blind to HR demands, but activists have to learn to breach barriers to get their key points accross). Politicians must be made to understand that they can not only learn, but should seek opinions from opponents –not only to oppose them, but to enrich their own ideas. (F. Monckeberg) It is thus said that good HR activists operate in the ‘acceptable shadow’ of a mostly hostile ideology towards genuine action on HR issues.***

***: Take home message for activists: It is dreams that generate ideas; ideas spread, are contagious and eventually lead to action. Ergo, dreaming about something is the first step toward achieving it. (J. Monsalvo)


In human rights work, it is as important to build trust as building distrust where the latter is called for. (F. Baum)


3. To HR-skeptic opponents the HR activist will say: “You may win, but not convince; you will win because you have more than enough brutal force to exert. But you will not convince, because convincing means persuading”. (M. de Unamuno)


4. Moreover, HR activists have always said: “If I do not see it I do not believe it”. But, sometimes, it should be: “If I do not believe it, I do not see it”. (Albino Gomez) [Or the same from a more skeptical point of view: “Seeing is to stop believing –as my very private book of quotes says”. (Julio Cortazar)].


5. It is true that HR activists have often accumulated sufficient critical judgment to do precisely what is needed. But they will only be able to carry that out if they face problems head-on without beating around the bush. There is no other way. Doing so will save them three or four years as compared with embarking in a lot of sterile projects and shy compromising acts. Therefore, when HR leaders criticize openly, it is not only to fight for an improvement of the situation at hand; it is also about sanctioning and holding accountable those that are responsible for the given situation.**** (M. Brncic)

****: Remember the quote by Vicente Navarro: “It is not inequalities per-se that kill, but rather those-who-benefit-from-the-inequalities-they-have-imposed that kill those-who-suffer-from-the-same”… and also keep in mind that leadership in any struggle is crucial, because “the fish first rots at its head”.


Allow me to finish this Reader with a potpourri.


6. Assorted attributes of HR leadership:


  • Being a HR activist means adopting a behavior of clever, tactical compromise with both your ideals and the realities in the field.
  • HR activists need to give ‘a carcinogenic boost’ to those small nodules of altruism they find in natural local leaders. (L. Weinstein)
  • Activists must use all institutional opportunities that present themselves to them to speak out and to unite people. (La Via Campesina)
  • HR activists do not sell their freedom for a of plate of lentils. (K. Popper)
  • Good leaders know how to differentiate priority relations from alliances. [There is a huge difference between a ‘flotilla approach’ and real collaboration and coalition building. Succeeding in coalition building takes a ton of effort to deliver an ounce of movement. (K. Harvey)].
  • HR activists set their mind to predict success. They arouse, organize, mobilize. Even in the worst of times, they are convinced they can triumph over hardship. (INTAL)
  • HR activists do more surfing the streets and the countryside than surfing the net.
  • HR activists do not engage just in dialogue; they engage in a ‘negotiation of interests’.
  • HR activists are expected to actively intervene in political life on the side of those who question existing power relations within and among countries. (V. Navarro)
  • HR activists combat any elusive behavior when facing the hard-hitting realities. They welcome and call for a reflection that fosters a polemic attitude. (M. Brncic)
  • HR activists do not pass judgment, they argue. (J.L. Borges)
  • HR activists cannot afford staying at the margins of any initiative for greater democracy. As opposed to average academics (with their norms, their limiting peer pressures and their lack of feedback from the field), HR activists question theories confronting them with the crude reality they know better. As they foster social change, they also simply must be accountable. (M. Brncic)
  • HR activists involved in fostering structural changes cannot be forgiving about or overlook social injustice.
  • If HR activists are not in trouble every day they are not doing their job. (M. Nestle)
  • Finally, HR activists need to break the silence barrier and the destructive sentiment called self-pity or fatalism. The activist is not just a passer-by in this world. (H. Tizon)


Claudio Schuftan in Ho Chi Minh City



It may be that true hope lies in the conviction that one has not irremediably lost all hope. It is only then that we can begin to live without fear, able finally to embark on making true all the little hopes which are the most lasting. (M. L. Bombal)

Nostalgia and reminiscences are only phantoms of the past that come back to the brains of aging men like me who need to revive and revamp them so that they can feel alive again…  Is it true that, as life lingers on, we often allow ourselves to deceive ourselves and falsely believe we are not loosing courage? (F. Monckeberg) Do not succumb to such a deception…


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