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writing for godot

Spontaneous social movements are increasingly and freely moving in the direction of human rights.

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Saturday, 25 July 2020 15:23

Human rights: Food for spreading a thought   ‘HR and empowerment’


Human Rights Reader 537



-True, we have a wide diversity of local human rights (HR) activists; the challenge is to link them. [The People’s Health Movement (PHM) is doing this on top of helping them with capacity building so as to involve them in right to health work].


1. The great challenge for HR activists is to connect with those working to change the present dire negative trends in development, making clear that the HR movement opposes the neoliberal approaches in place and thus shares the same strategic enemy with other movements. Can we find the modes of communication and alliance with them to bring about a global movement and propel this opposition forward? Collective action is indispensible for counterbalancing the decline of democracy we are seeing, as well as for increasing civic participation and for keeping HR values and visions at the very forefront.* Getting to the next phase will take new leaders, wide participation, and recognition of the need for new structures. In these times, this is a tall order. (Roberto Savio)

*: Human rights activists and communicators need help to determine whether the collective actions they apply around HR are having an actual impact; they need to know if the messages go beyond inspirationally arousing claim holders since the content ought not only to be aspirational, but mobilizing. Yes, we are surrounded by everyday heroes. Spotlight them; look for stories that have not been told; give a platform to these people. The HR community can elevate their voices; this community provides the perfect platform for them to share their experiences. (Camila Chaudron)


2. So, where then is the discussion of this challenge to be found? If HR activists believe that such networking is utopian and impossible, they should be honest and say so. For instance, if a project claims it is contributing to mitigating hunger while not actually affecting hunger in a specific place, have its implementers say so! (George Kent)


3. The discussion on HR activism’s contents must depart from acknowledging that the powerful serve mainly the powerful, not the powerless, simply because the powerless cannot do much for the benefit of the powerful. In many cases the powerful actually exploit the powerless, particularly because claim holders are not broadly organized, networked and mobilized (the latter being the key).


There is not much value in a coalition of organizations and militants who meet merely to discuss among themselves though… (Roberto Savio)


-As one activist said: “They treat us as ‘opiniologists’ and not as engaged social workers with a clear compromise and commitment”. (Damian Marino)


4. A couple caveats here:

  • Too often, the aim is clear, but what precisely HR activists want to achieve is less clear --and how to get there stays in the dark. Too often as well, protest movements have big words, but even bigger perplexity and helplessness facing the after-protest challenges.
  • The last thing a HR activist should loose is hope. Hope belongs to life; it is life defending itself. (Julio Cortazar) Hope is not the same as optimism though. It is not the conviction that everything will turn out OK, but the certainty that something makes sense, independently of how it turns out. (Vaclav Havel)
  • A word of caution for activists: Game theory tells us that if any movement of the players on the board worsens the situation for everybody, the only way to win is not to play.


And then, there are the scholars in the human rights movement

-When scholarship and activism compete for scholars’ time, it is activism that tends to be pushed aside.


5. Scholarship will have limited influence if it is restricted to classrooms and professional journals** (peer reviewed by powerful elite researchers that maintain the status-quo …and sometimes allow fraud to slip by) and/or conferences (that generate more heat than illumination…)***.

**: More than 8,000 research articles are published in the world every day of the year.

***: What we need are action-oriented keynote speakers, not those that ruminate and rehash old wine with boring power point slides. The world is run by the people who show up!


6. In academia, we speak of ‘publish or perish’; in HR work it is ‘do or perish’. Progressive scholars: Go to the people!


7. We can thus rightfully ask: Have scholar-advocates mostly stayed in the intellectual/top-down side of things? Bottom line here then is: Have HR activists done anything (or enough) to address this lest we loose important potential strategic allies? [But is it only scholars? Among many other, keep in mind we also need way more extra-parliamentary and parliamentary, as well as student involvement in the struggle for HR. In such a struggle, it is easy to meet, but not easy to act together (the rich are more united precisely in that sense; they close ranks very rapidly when threatened)].


By definition, one cannot empower someone else! Claim holders have to do it by themselves (David Sanders and David Werner)


-Power cannot be given, it must be taken. Empowerment is at once a personal and a group process. It points towards the ethos of collective responsibility. (Sanders and Werner)

-Furthermore, claim holders cannot depend on someone doing something for them --particularly because quick fixes are not the answer. (Gwen Crawley)


8. Granted. A lot of opening of minds will be needed. Be, therefore, prepared to hammer on closed doors and on closed minds for a while. Providing people with new, convincing but contradictory points of information does not automatically make them change their emotionally rooted arguments.**** It often only causes people to dig deeper into their emotions to hold onto their views. There is little that can be achieved by bombarding those with deep-rooted views with ‘facts’ since facts are always a reflection of socially constructed values. (Olivia Goldhill)

****: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. (Karl Marx, the Eiteenth Brummaire) Mixing one’s wines may be a mistake. But old and new wisdom mix admirably. (Bertolt Brecht)


9. “To tell someone they are wrong, first tell them they are right”: A philosopher’s 350-year-old trick to get people to change their minds is now backed up by psychologists. (O. Goldhill) [When HR activists wish to correct someone and to show them that s/he errs, they/we must take note from what side s/he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true for them; so, admit that truth to them, but also reveal to them the side on which their perception is false. They may/will be satisfied with that, for they may see that they were not really mistaken, but only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything despite the fact that no one likes to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that we naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally we cannot err from the side we look since the perceptions of our senses are always true. (Blaise Pascal)]


10. In that sense, I am not an optimist; I am a ‘possibilist’. By this, I mean we have got to pull together to help get to the needed claim holders’ empowerment. That is what participatory democracy is all about. Choose people in your life who are gutsier than you, more willing to take risks, and absorb that from them and be courageous yourself.***** That is what this moment in history calls for. (Frances Moore-Lappe)

*****: There are three classes of people: a) Few who make things happen; b) scores who watch them happening; and c) millions who have no idea of what is really happening. There is no room for dreamers-only anymore; we need doers: More foot soldiers, not only a few generals. Deserve your dreams! (Octavio Paz)


11. Do not underestimate:

  • Most people with an interest in change can do something. For most of them, the opportunities are for small steps and little pushes. These may seem insignificant, but the sum of small actions makes great movements. (Robert Chambers)
  • Experience shows that naming-and-shaming fails to alleviate the suffering of victims and only occasionally satisfies the strategic aims of the HR movement. This strategy rests on the false premise that the ‘namer’ somehow possesses moral authority and that the ‘named’ will recognize this moral superiority and act accordingly. (Alfred de Zayas)


12. Finally, on the normative side: One national public interest CSO ought to act as an umbrella HR organization, to be a broker of HR information to its member organizations helping them in interpreting and challenging them to use the information to their advantage. This by itself fosters activism on how to do things differently giving other CSOs novel ideas. The umbrella organization thus becomes the catalyst and alter-ego of its members. It brings members to a common ground by setting up lose or militant networks united on HR goals in which the relationship is based on a shared vision and political outlook on HR issues.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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