Human Rights “Light”: using rhetoric to unite disparate disciplines

Over the last decade, there has been increasing attention to the Social Practice of Human Rights. One recent example of this is an anti-human trafficking coalition called Abolition Ohio—an attempt to bring many different types of human rights actors together to accomplish real change in the world. It operates primarily in southwestern Ohio, USA and, to a lesser extent, across the entire state and the country.

Nearly everyone involved in our coalition is dedicated to the same mission: to stir society’s conscience to action against all forms of trafficking and slavery—but our various perspectives and motivations could not be more different. Very few people in the US consider our social problems to be “human rights” issues—or even know much about human rights in general. There are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the US, yet less than 10,000 are explicitly HR oriented. The US Human Rights Network only has 228 member organizations, The Urban League’s National Center for Charitable Statistics has a category for international human rights but not for domestic human rights. The term “human rights” is not mentioned anywhere in their list of 26 types of organizations in the “Civil Rights, Social Action & Advocacy” category. In my nearly two decades of teaching and community organizing, I’ve found that the average American would likely say that the US has civil rights violations, crimes against children, sexism and racism, inequality, corruption, police brutality, lack of access to health care, domestic violence, mass incarceration, homelessness, and so on—but not human rights abuses. While a majority of Americans support human rights ideals, awareness of human rights language, principles, or documents is very low. Scholars have found lower use of human rights frames by professionals in the US than their European counterparts. Instead, people here who work to right social wrongs often do so from moral, religious, charitable, humanitarian, or social justice perspectives. However, tackling these issues using an explicit, human rights-based approach offers many moral, legal, and instrumental benefits. It offers clearly defined legal responsibilities and can lead to a better understanding of broader structural cause and effect.

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Promoting and publicizing this rhetoric will educate the public about human rights to make the concept much more accessible and acceptable, and can increase engagement—especially here in the US.

Framing issues as human rights can be difficult to put into practice—for ideological, cultural, and practical reasons. There is an inherent distrust of government and other institutions among the US public. There is a deep-seated fear of the UN and other international organizations as well, although US support for the UN has risen steadily over the past decade. In practice, it is very difficult for an overworked attorney at a legal aid organization to use a human rights argument—for example, to link a routine housing discrimination case to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination—they lack the time, knowledge, and resources to do so.

While it is clearly difficult to adopt a fully human rights-based approach across different issue areas, and the effectiveness of even trying is still unclear, perhaps we need something more modest: the spread of human rights rhetoric across diverse issue areas. This could be the adoption of a “human rights light” approach as opposed to a full, comprehensive human rights-based approach. Human rights rhetoric can act as a common language for advocates from diverse backgrounds and settings, and a veneer of human rights discourse can attract the attention of advocates across issue areas. It can lead to increased awareness, collaboration, and synergy. It can foster a greater diversity of actors involved in issues—ethnic, ideological, socio-economic, and professional—and can expand networks to include nontraditional partners. For example, our anti-human trafficking coalition includes social service providers, health care providers, local/state/federal government officials, NGOs, faith-based organizations, legal aid agencies, local/state/federal law enforcement agencies, colleges and universities, primary and secondary schools, and concerned individuals. The coalition unites many issue areas: immigration, refugee, domestic violence, racism, homelessness, poverty, opioid crisis, public health, education, crime, and human trafficking—all under the banner of human rights.

There are a myriad of diverse actors working for the common good. Without a unifying thread, like human rights, these organizations and advocates often work in isolation from one another, unaware that their work is naturally complementary. We have used human rights rhetoric to break down the “silos” separating anti-human trafficking, civil rights, and fair trade advocates—in a recent community educational event, we collaborated across these issue areas to host a successful anti-human trafficking event.  Our broad interpretation of human rights on campus has brought together diverse faculty, staff, and students to improve our business practices.While our primary mission is to prevent human trafficking, one of the key goals is to broaden the “issue-space” of human rights in the US, to make it a much more inclusive movement. Promoting and publicizing this rhetoric will educate the public about human rights to make the concept much more accessible and acceptable, and can increase engagement—especially here in the US. It is important to include basic human rights education as part of any related issue education and awareness campaign.

"The lack of explicit human rights language leads to missed opportunities to unite movements and advocates."

The lack of explicit human rights language leads to missed opportunities to unite movements and advocates. This is its power—even if it is only rhetoric. To quote Michael Ignatieff, “We need to stop thinking of human rights as trumps and begin thinking of them as a language that creates the basis for deliberation…the shared vocabulary from which our arguments can begin and the bare human minimum from which differing ideas of human flourishing can take root.”

While the ideal may be achieving a robust human rights-based approach across all human rights-related issue areas, striving toward that cannot be the first step—nor can the difficulty of achieving the ideal prevent us from attempting something less ideal but still powerful. The use of superficial human rights rhetoric across varied issue areas is not an oversimplification or “dumbing” down of a complicated legal concept; instead, it will help unite these many disparate campaigns, organizations, networks, and advocates. It will expand the ranks of human rights practitioners to include millions of social workers, attorneys, advocates, educators, and others. And, in solidarity, they will be able to accomplish much more to alleviate human suffering.