Finding equity: shifting power structures in human rights

The conventional wisdom in human rights is that only international NGOs (INGOs) are the legitimate civil society voice for speaking about issues across the globe. Yet most of these are based in the global North or have recently moved headquarters or decentralized from the global North. To help diversify and strengthen the human rights movement, Ford embarked on the Strengthening Human Rights Worldwide (SHRW) global initiative in 2012—a $54 million, five-year effort that provided long-term (five year) core funding to fourteen grantees to further internationalize the human rights movement and increase its impact. In 2016, nearing the end of this initiative, Ford contracted an independent team to conduct a review to assess what it did (and did not) accomplish.

The review found that while the field continues to privilege international human rights groups, there are positive changes underway. On the one hand, there are national and global South human rights groups effectively influencing the human rights movement on their own; on the other, there are new modalities of international organizations that span North and South, international and national groups, which are modelling effective ways of utilizing their diverse capacities to promote human rights.

One key finding from this review was that if national groups want to make an impact globally, they need independent resources. This allows them to decide which issues they want to bring to the attention of human rights groups elsewhere in the world, to find partners facing similar challenges, and to undertake research and generate evidence from multiple contexts. For example, in the SHRW global initiative, CELS in Argentina found that women who committed drug offences constituted 70% of the federal female prison population of Argentina. CELS led a joint initiative with 16 other organizations to request the first regional hearing on drug policies at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in March 2014, explicitly linking drug regulation with human rights problems. Through these kinds of collaborations, CELS and its partners succeeded in getting the attention of the international human rights movement, including placing the issue on the agenda of the Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

Global Action-Researchers Share Ideas Participants at the annual Global Action-Research Workshop for Young Human Rights Advocates in Leticia, in the Colombian Amazon discuss issues on environment justice. Photo © Dejusticia  

The review found many more such examples of innovation that included shifts in power and in organizational modalities. For example, the Brazil-based international human rights organization Conectas hosts the International Human Rights Colloquium, which specifically aims to create a space for human rights groups from the global South to learn with and from each other. Over the period of this initiative, Conectas has leveraged relationships built in the initiative to diminish its own power and control over the agenda and decisions regarding participants of this Colloquium. One example is its decision to invite groups from other parts of the world to co-host the International Human Rights Colloquium in 2015. To guarantee a more inclusive process, Conectas is now shifting its approach to hold the event every two years, preceded by a series of regional preparatory meetings to allow more input from local groups.

Indeed, despite the inequitable resource distribution of the human rights movement, some INGOs in this initiative demonstrated effective ways of supporting a more equitable and efficient ecology. These include using their brands or platforms in support of local and national initiatives. For example, working with researchers on the ground in every region of the world, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) tracks and publicizes companies’ human rights impacts. Its report on the coal industry in India, Colombia, South Africa, and Egypt, Digging Deeper, co-written with Dejusticia, was instrumental in giving a global South-based view of the sometimes devastating consequences of extractives industries—and it was presented at the Conference (of the Parties) on Climate Change in 2015. BHRRC’s brand recognition enables local human rights groups to get attention of transnational companies in ways they could not do alone.

Another insight from some INGOs in the initiative was that a membership-based structure, with democratic governance, provides an effective means for national and global South groups to get their issues onto the movement’s agendas. Membership is a critical way for reaching and involving groups and human rights defenders on the ground. One illustration of this is Forum-Asia, which initiated a seven-day Global Advocacy Learning Program on Human Rights and Development with fellowships for participants from their member organizations and other strong applicants without financial resources.

Yet another mechanism that both INGOs and national human rights groups can use is to support constituencies in self-organizing so that they become independent financially. For example, in March 2015, AWID provided key support and resources for a meeting to consolidate an organization of women’s human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa. That same month, the Women Human Rights Defenders Middle East and North Africa (WHRD MENA) Coalition was officially launched.

"At the heart of developing an equitable human rights movement is establishing methods in which groups collaborate."

At the heart of developing an equitable human rights movement is establishing methods in which groups collaborate in conceptualizing potential forums, research agendas, publications, policy think-tanks or other spaces. This ensures that their agendas and processes are routinely and automatically shaped with and include people from national level. For example, the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa worked with two existing alliances focusing on the UN Treaty on Transnational Corporations: The Treaty Alliance, a broad global alliance of organizations advocating for a treaty on transnational corporations; and The Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power (or “The People’s Treaty”), which focuses on bringing community voices into the process.

Indeed, making sure that alliances with a mix of professionalized international and national NGOs—and community or social movement representatives—fully recognize the latter groups’ skills and experience is key to shifting the ecology of the global human rights community.

The need for this power shift became very clear when the review showed that the second cohort of grantees in this initiative—primarily INGOs—generally had greater influence on media coverage and responses. The first cohort, made up mostly of national or global South institutions, had less impact. This was either because they gave less attention to media campaigns, or because big INGOs are considered by global media as having a more legitimate voice.

To avoid detracting from local organizations, INGOs need to build relationships with these groups through ongoing collaborations that are based on trust and transparency, making meaning together rather than through drawing on Southern “voices” to achieve their own goals. This requires INGOs to respect local perspectives and not to let large bureaucracies or distant operations and communications teams undermine effective collaborations. It is not possible or appropriate for every group to try to be the gatherer of evidence, the builder of media relationships, the developer of tools. By working in deep synergy with local groups from different parts of the world, INGOs can bring added value in an ethical manner.

The marker of progress towards an equitable ecology is when local and national groups no longer have to wait to be invited into the global human rights system. Indeed, local groups can and should create their own spaces for alliance-building and coalitions. And with more financial freedom, these NGOs, as well as INGOs committed to human rights within the movement, can create spaces that enable other grassroots groups to increase their independence and further shift the dynamics of power.

How can the human rights movement meet the challenges of an ever-changing global context? What types of alliances are national and international groups creating in order to remain relevant? Leading human rights activists around the world share their views.

This video is a product of the independent Learning Review of the Strengthening Human Rights Worldwide global initiative of the Ford Foundation.