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Food for a sharp observer’s thought


Human Rights Reader 364


  1. In sink with the title, and with no intention to glorify human rights (HR) activists, I would like to start this Reader with some assorted aphorisms I have picked up here and there:
  • The only struggle HR activists lose is the one they never undertake or the one they abandon.
  • They are constantly challenged; so they must thus pick their battles wisely. (To them, compromise often can and does bare fruits).* (adapted from J. Koenig)
  • They do not abandon themselves (as many of us do) to that false happiness that comes from routine. (J. R. Ribeyro)
  • As opposed to intellectuals who are rather redundant and often dilettanti, activists are passionate about their social and HR ideals and, therefore, delve into the real, unfair world we live-in with their head and feet. (M. Vargas Llosa)
  • Activists cannot become the new protagonists if they are still under the spell of old narratives. (R. Ampuero)
  • They see the difference between what can be foreseen and what is predestined. [Do they turn out to have a better crystal ball than most among us…?].
  • HR activists stay away from ‘romantic illusions’ in the face of messy problems. (J. Mackenbach)
  • They find-what-they-look-for as they know the answers lie in the questions they actually ask and pose to duty bearers.
  • They do not indulge in too many explanations, because their friends do not need them, their enemies do not believe them and the uncritical followers of trends do not understand them. (Albino Gomez)
  • They see their role as making-exceptions-becoming-a-new-normal. (So, as the years press-on, they do not let their motivation wane or weaken).
  • Activists make it a point to understand others, their intentions, their interests, their hopes, their difficulties, their tragedies. (adapted from R. Kapuscinski)
  • They do not ‘hope’. Instead, they work hard to get where the HR movement needs to go to: Today, tomorrow, every day. (Aung San Suu Kyi)
  • They see it as their function to delegitimize what is being deceitfully passed as rightful.
  • For them, activism is not about mechanistic thought and manipulated facts; it is about creativity and seeing key connections. (V. Shiva)
  • Above all, HR activists have to be a good person, because bad persons cannot be good HR activists.** (But in the name of the good, they must not fight so much against evil that they become evil themselves…!).


*: One can be more revolutionary by simply not accepting or complying with certain ‘norms’ than openly challenging them. Perhaps this is the difference between an act of disobedience and a revolutionary act. (A. Gomez)

**: There are wo/men who fight one day and they are good. There are other who fight for a year and are better. There are those who fight for many years, and they are very good. But there are those who struggle their whole life; those are the indispensable ones. (Bertolt Brecht)


One is old when one has more memories than projects in the soul.


-Never forget: There is no worse remorse for our activism than to have had the key to the solution in front of our noses and not have drawn the simplest of conclusions and have acted accordingly. (It is not always about premeditated actions, but about a series of small actions and gestures that add up towards an intimately hoped-for outcome). (P. Simonetti)

-Learning from listening is activism’s birthplace. (J. Koenig)


  1. It is fitting here to start with a caveat. It goes like this: Flesh decomposes faster than intelligence. It is a characteristic of the old age syndrome to think that nobody can do things like one does oneself, that one is irreplaceable and absolutely needed. We must deal with the fact that the world goes on functioning perfectly when we are buried two meters below. We must be aware and fear that, as years go by, we enjoy more deviating from our ideals than carrying-on with the tasks we really stand-for and believe-in. [How many years have you let go by…?]***

***: We all have our fears; they make us screen endless unpalatable information which we eventually forget (an internal conflict technically known as ‘cognitive dissonance’). True? (You may not even notice that you have turned your attention elsewhere and have now forgotten what you just read). Your fear may prevent you from adequately analyzing the evidence and/or responding intelligently to it. So, if you are one of the people still reading this Reader, you are probably less frightened than most people. The others may have given up before they got to this paragraph. The primary problem with such fear is that it distorts not only our mental focus, but also our capacity for analysis and, worse, it distorts the behavior of national elites, i.e., corporate executives and their political, military, media, bureaucratic, academic and judicial acolytes. Fear will drive dysfunctional corporate activity irrespective of its HR, environmental and other costs. And corporate executives will ensure that their political and other acolytes do not get in their way, because the fear that drives profit-maximizing behavior is deep-rooted and far outweighs any fears in relation to HR or the environment. Arguments, no matter how sensible or evidential, do not work (look at the climate negotiations… Rich nations who give climate financing for poor nations do not do so additionally, but put the same as part of their existing foreign aid portfolios –and this does not help…) The question is: Do we have the courage to fight fear? There is no downside in trying. But we need to fight strategically so that we defeat both elite fear and our own fear. (R. Burrowes) [How long will it take for you to overcome your fears and join the HR activists’ fight?].


  1. If we do not act, life as a journey becomes a useless illusion; there is no journey; the world goes nowhere. If we stay put at home or in our offices, the world around us keeps its course in a race to the bottom. (V. Nabokov)


  1. There is an important difference between the cost of action and the cost of inaction: The costs of inaction are primarily borne by those who are the most vulnerable: You know that the worst consequences will be suffered by those who live in poor countries, especially women, children, young people and the elderly. (J. Martens)


The only choice I now see for you is between being a human rights advocate or a human rights activist.


-You may have experienced many disillusions and may want to get away of it all. But do not hide from your ideals. Dare. (P. Simonetti)

-The times do not call for procrastination or despair, but call for action.


  1. There always come times for those concerned with public policy generally or, for instance public health policy, when conscience compels commitment. That time has come for us now. It came quite some while ago, but has not yet been heeded. We must all be responsible citizens now –in our everyday, as well as professional lives.**** In doing so, we need to humbly accept that immiserated and oppressed people and populations whose HR are being systematically and chronically neglected have a better sense of what is going on in their world and what is or is not in store for them than do those of us whose material lives are comfortable. Ultimately, it is aggrieved claim holders who have to stand up for their own rights, to shape what they are fighting for, and to finally work towards a just society. This means that we have to be prepared to put our careers on the line; that mentoring and inspiring young colleagues and natural leaders is for us a sacred duty and that, when our grandchildren listen to our story they can say they are proud of us. (Fabio Gomez)

****: To use a metaphor from Franz Kafka: For many of our colleagues it is not the lack of oxygen, but the lack of capacity of their lungs…


  1. It is thus time that we all stopped being primarily self-centered, making our own generation and ourselves the focus of our thoughts and of our work. Further, it is time that we no longer put humans first, for the sake of our own species, but do so as well for the sake of all other species and for the natural world and the biosphere. Bottom line here is that the overall concern of what-is-seen-as-an-unacceptable-state-of-affairs prompts colleagues to reflect upon overcoming the still prevalent widespread avoidance of uncomfortable truths, staying in a state of mind that perpetuates the assumption that impoverished and disadvantaged populations need aid in the form of money, handouts, goods or interventions of types that, by their nature, are not sustainable or, worse, mystify or deadlock the people they are supposed to help. (World Nutrition editorial, September 2014)


  1. So, to end, here is what a HR activists’ motto could be: Let’s be more than ‘progressive’! Never give up your sense of duty. Duty is the echo of our being. Being more radical is our duty today; this is actually no more than keeping loyal to what our common sense tells us. Therefore, being beyond progressive is to grasp what is humanly fair and just. We cannot assume that what is humanly unfair and unjust is ‘natural’. Let’s be radical, i. e., let’s listen to our common sense. What is natural, we assume; what is humanly right and fair, we need to deeply comprehend. Yes, duty is the echo of our being. (L.Weinstein)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Character assassination (of HR activists, for example) has always been a tool used by those who cannot successfully defend their message. Although they think such slander will destroy people’s career, they do not understand that the attacked often gave up a ‘career’ for a life of service. The spirit of service inspired by the truth, conscience and compassion cannot be stopped by threats or media attacks. Applying science has always been about service, not servitude. (V. Shiva)

-Every person shines with her/his very own light. There are no identical inner fires. There are big fire and small fire people; other have fires of all colors. There are people with serene fires and those with wild fires that fill the air with sparks. Some fires are dull; they do neither shine nor burn. But yet other fires burn life with such determination that you cannot look at them without blinking –and whoever comes near them gets her/his light turned on. (Eduardo Galeano)

-The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. (Albert Einstein)

-It is attributed to Winston Churchill to have said that an optimist sees an opportunity even in a calamity as opposed to a pessimist who considers all our opportunities a calamity. [Also consider: Does having just a few options make our decision-making easier…or doesn’t it? (A. Gomez)].


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