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writing for godot


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Friday, 11 January 2019 05:41


Moral courage is the companion of great leadership


Must being a committed human rights (HR) activist these days be taken as an insult? (Milan Kundera)


1. In one of his last public engagements, the recently departed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein pointed out the following when referring to activism:


  • Historically, there would have been no social progress if not for the presence of specific humans dissenting and breaking from herd-inspired suspicion and fear.
  • Too many summits and conferences held between states are tortured affairs that lack profundity, but are full of jargon and tiresome clichés that are, in a word, meaningless.
  • What is absent is a sincere will to work together though all will claim --again, under the lights and on camera-- that they are wholly committed to doing so.
  • The systems for states to act collectively at higher levels in pursuit of solutions are decomposing. The current signs are not encouraging. What is clear is that our systems for fixing the widespread HR problems are brokenIs not this the result of decades of mediocre leadership?
  • Who is taking note now? We must think differently, think more about HR and do this with some urgency.
  • The suffering inflicted by self-serving and weak leadership is immense and world-wide.
  • Laws, unyielding and supported widely by the political class, fall hard on those rendered poor, never on its own privileged authors. Is this not rank hypocrisy?
  • There is massive dereliction of the duty to serve by those who exercise sovereignty on behalf of their people.
  • Politicians are too often too self-serving, or too spiteful, to care for and protect those made vulnerable by an unfair system. They are not just cowardly but profoundly foolish, because in producing these stress fractures, they place at risk not only their own futures, but everyone else’s as well.
  • My hope lies in a set of people not widely known internationally, but familiar to those in the HR community. These people do have courage.
  • They have no state power to hide behind: instead, they step forward.
  • They are the leaders of communities and social movements, big and small, who are willing to forfeit everything --including their lives-- in defense of HR.
  • Their valor is selfless. There is no weakness here. They represent the best of us.
  • There are such grassroots leaders of movements against discrimination and inequalities in every region.
  • World-wide, they are not coordinated. But what if they were? What would happen if all these movements supported each other, openly and actively?


A good activist is s/he who does, not what s/he wants, but what s/he has to do


2. It is not enough to take action, though. As HR activists, we must overcome and win, that is to say, take more action than the forces pushing things in a retrograde direction. (Abbé Pierre) We therefore note that the challenge for HR activists is that they often cannot, with the same speed, bring up the concept of the indispensability of HR --and effectively use it-- compared with the speed the proponents of status-quo are able to bury any talk of HR.* (But beware: It is not the enemies that condemn or betray you, it is often your friends and comrades...)   (M. Kundera)

*: The above not withstanding, activists need to spend less time dismissing HR critics as fools and bigots and more time fixing what is wrong. In this effort, they must demand guarantees (linked to processes to be set in motion); they cannot always ask for immediate complete fulfillment (an outcome). This is the essence of the progressive realization of HR.


3. An activist may choose for claim holders to engage in acts of disobedience so as to say no to power. At this point in history, the capacity to doubt, to criticize and to disobey may be all that stands between a future for mankind and the end of civilization. (adapted from Erich Fromm, On Disobedience) If activists choose not to be as revolutionary as that, what remains as an after taste for them is wanting to be revolutionary. So, then, they feel constantly guilty of not being such. The anguish they may feel can often translate into cowardice and fear. (M. Kundera)


4. It has sometimes been pointed out that, to become HR activists, women have a harder decision to make because, as opposed to male activists, it is harder for them to overcome the contradictions between the private and the public spheres in their lives.**

**: Only the bourgeois hypocritically divide themselves in a private and a public persona. (M. Kundera)


Some practical recommendations for activists


Critical political engagement requires activists to go from political dialogue to structural critique. (People’s Health Movement)


5. Eight principles of movement building:

  • Attend to all levels of the movement; individuals, relationships, communities, organizations and networks.
  • Understand the pathways of activism.
  • Community building, including mutualism is part of movement building.
  • Collaborating with the state is a matter of judgment.
  • Social movements have deep roots; know your history.
  • Leadership is necessary, but so is accountability.
  • Build constructive links between the HR movement and broader political movements.
  • Convergence (solidarity, networking, collaboration) is a key objective of movement building.


6. Three principles of campaigning and advocacy:

  • Campaign strategies bring together theories of change and forms of action always adapting to the existing conditions.
  • Networking for campaigning is empowering, but requires investment and compromise.
  • Always go from political dialogue to structural critique. (People’s Health Movement; read more at


Northern internationalization of human rights activism must address local HR priorities, not ‘Northern priorities for the South’; it must take its lead from the South. (Mona Younis)


7. International HR NGOs are increasingly locating staff and offices in the global South. A recent evaluation suggests that this can hinder rather than help the building of domestic HR constituencies. Working with Southern counterparts, Northern organizations have actually registered important though piecemeal gains on a range of HR issues, policies, legislation and more. However, even many more of their advances will not yield the long-sought systemic changes that only strong domestic movements and active social mobilization can and will deliver.  Indeed, without a HR-informed public*** (that expects and demands from those who govern to deliver on their duty to respect, protect and fulfill HR), all such gains will remain partial and vulnerable.

***: Informing the public is a key part of social mobilization; we call this priority task ‘practical politics’; it has a couple of mottos: ‘you find what you look for’ and, as we know, ‘the answer lies in the question’. (Urban Jonsson)


8. With their considerably greater resources and global standing and access, Northern HR organizations acting as activists can and often do dwarf domestic HR voices, even at very local levels. What is thus needed is for those who govern to become more responsive to domestic constituencies, not responsive to Northern organizations. Funding for Southern groups must, therefore, be a priority, and groups in the global North are not to compete with counterparts in the global South for funding from local and international sources.


9.  Finally, with their substantially higher salaries and international stature, Northern organizations can and do draw established local practitioners away from domestic activist organizations, adding another challenge to efforts to strengthen domestic HR communities. Northern organizations that continue to believe that they are the principal levers of change in the South may continue to do some good work, but will be delaying yet further the systemic change required for the full realization of HR. (M. Younis)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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