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Let's Talk Human Rights

Going Against the Grain: Human Rights and Working for Change

By Nicola Browne and Allison Corkery

How can we make human rights frameworks, methods and mechanisms more relevant in our era of grassroots activism and mass mobilization? “Well,” came the answer, “first we need to talk about capitalism.”

The reply surprised both of us, coming as it did during the opening plenary of an international academic conference on human rights – not, in our experience, the kind of place where statements like these are made. We shared a quick grin with each other that said, silently, “Well, this should be different.”

And different it certainly was. The theme for the annual Social Practice of Human Rights Conference, held at the University of Dayton in Ohio in early October, was Going Against the Grain: a recognition that change happens through people doing things differently. In that spirit, instead of focusing on the content of human rights laws, we jumped straight into the how of human rights change. This three-day conference, attended by hundreds of scholars, organizers and civil-society professionals from across the US and around the world, was notable for its innovation, as well as its willingness to ask hard questions and deliver some home truths about how “professionalization” has split human rights practice, creating artificial divides between academics, practitioners and activists.

The importance the conference placed on grassroots initiatives, many of which used human rights as a tool to advance economic democracy, was refreshing and inspiring. We heard about Cooperation Jackson, a network of co-operative businesses focused on building solidarity and a regenerative economy in the state of Mississippi; about Gem City Market, an initiative to combat “food apartheid” in the conference’s host city of Dayton; and about Human Rights Cities, which promote models and practices for local implementation of human rights across the US, because “human rights don’t trickle down...they rise up!”

We also had an opportunity to contribute. Reflecting on her work supporting communities in Northern Ireland, Nicola spoke about grassroots participation as a positive disruption to human rights work, moving it from advocacy to organizing and from extractive research to action research. Allison shared findings from her participatory action research with activists in South African mining communities, exploring the relevance of human rights as a tool for tackling inequality.

In human rights work, as in the wider world, it can be all too easy to miss what should be obvious: that change often depends on what happens in the gaps of formal systems. The priority given at this event to sharing local efforts to deploy rights in places where they are needed most offered a rich learning opportunity — and highlighted, for us, three important lessons in particular. 

First, Social Practice of Human Rights 2019 really pushed conference participants to unpack how strategies and tactics grounded in human rights can support social movements to contest power. For example, Allison’s research showed that activists seeing themselves as rights holders contributed strongly to building collective identity. At the same time, however, rights standards need to be used more analytically, supporting activists to critique how the concentration of political and economic power enables rights violations and fuels inequality. Nicola spoke of how international human rights law can support and validate activists’ campaigns around housing issues that, in post-conflict Northern Ireland, are often seen as too politically controversial to confront. Other participants highlighted the way that human rights serve to codify universal notions of justice, dignity and the equal worth of all life, which resonate across cultures. 

Second, the conference reiterated how essential it is to envision solutions. Generally speaking, human rights practitioners have focused more energy on calling out what we don’t want than spelling out what we do. In contrast, the many examples and case studies presented over the three days served to illustrate that when you are organizing for change, aspiration can be a more powerful motivator than accusation. A number of plenary and keynote speakers emphasized that the vision we need to be able to sell is of systems that make sense to people – not merely this tweak or that minor adjustment. One case shared in the plenary, the Access to Medicine movement, uses human rights to present alternative to the pharmaceutical profit model, for example.

Buy-in to a conceptual framework like human rights happens through its practical application, not through its theoretical elaboration. As Black Lives Matter co-founder Opel Tometi stressed in her keynote at the conference, there’s a way to do today’s work “that hints towards the future”. If the transformative potential of human rights is to be realized, it is vital that our frameworks are dynamic, not static. Organizing around aspiration means listening to what people say are their rights, and then, as one panelist succinctly put it, “reverse engineering” the framework to fit that vision. We learned about design thinking tools for supporting conversations about people’s aspirations. For example, #WakandaCon engages Black Panther enthusiasts in a process of collective imagining and world building for Black Liberation.

Third, the event served to remind us all that while visionary examples abound, it’s also important to address the barriers to a more radical approach to collective action grounded in human rights. In his thought-provoking keynote, Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All; The Elite Charade of Changing the World, warned of the pervasive ways that elites capture the global social change agenda. In the human rights context, this often translates into accusations of “overreach” and a retreat back to narrow interpretations of the human rights framework limited to “core” civil and political rights protections. 

The global nature of the challenges we face means both making change locally and joining forces at the international level. Shifting our focus to examine how local groups experience the brunt of entrenched vested interests reveals that power operates in similar ways across countless communities, issues and borders. It is this knowledge that can provide the foundation for human rights activists, practitioners and academics to truly “go against the grain” by working in solidarity for our common future.

This piece was originally published on Atlantic Fellows.

Photo: Allison Corkery and Nicola Browne meet Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World."

Nicola Browne is a human rights activist with 18 years of experience in NGOs and academia, she is the former director of policy for the Participation and the Practice of Rights project (PPR), in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Allison Corkery is the Director of the Rights Claiming and Accountability Program at the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), based in New York City. Her work with human rights activists focuses on how to strengthen research, in order to support more strategic and evidence-based advocacy on rights deprivations and inequalities. 

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