Misunderstanding the mass politics of the rights mission

Aryeh Neier has contributed a very revealing commentary on the tension between human rights and mass mobilization that goes to the heart of the debate on openGlobalRights. Contrary to Stephen Hopgood and Samuel Moyn, Neier argues that international human rights organizations should not engage in social or economic justice campaigning, but simply hold everyone accountable strictly to international standards barring the cruel, abusive, or unfair exercise of power. He warns against mobilizing a global grassroots constituency on the grounds that mass political movements often perpetrate rights abuses, and besides, outfits like Human Rights Watch wouldn’t be good at mobilizing the masses anyway. 

This concedes the crucial point to Hopgood and Moyn. Strengthening potent reform movements in the developing world is where the action is going to be in human rights. The human rights movement needs to play this game, and play it well.

The problem with Neier’s argument is that, historically, there has been no way to separate efforts to promote general human rights from rising groups’ political efforts to protect their own social interests and values. Whether these efforts succeed has depended on their ability to mobilize a powerful mass constituency to fight for and institutionalize their own conception of rights. Reformist religious minorities represented a strong social base and fought for their own religious freedom. Rising middle class groups in increasingly commercial societies fought for political representation, protection of property rights, and freedom to criticize the old ruling elites. Rising working classes in increasingly industrial societies fought for the right to act collectively and for social rights.

Even principled groups that fought successfully for other people’s rights did so because they represented a strong constituency with rights concerns of its own. Neier’s book, The International Human Rights Movement: A History, portrays rights activists, such as the abolitionists, as selfless, heroic, unrelenting idealists, and as such, a model for today’s human rights activists. In fact, the uncompromising zealots among them, such as William Lloyd Garrison, alienated their potential bases of support and became marginal to the anti-slavery movement. Far more effective were the anti-slavery party politicians like Abraham Lincoln in the US and the coalition of Whig aristocrats and religious dissenters in Britain who were able to attach the anti-slavery issue to a broad-based reform agenda that spoke to both the principled and practical concerns of powerful mass groups.

Neier is right that social reform movements can sometimes succumb to intolerant abuses of their own. John Calvin was eloquent about Protestants’ right to religious freedom, for example, but then burned deviants in his own movement at the stake. But this doesn’t mean that the human rights movement should stand aloof from the hard political tasks of forging a powerful popular base. Rather, like the most adept anti-slavery politicians, rights activists need to know when to compromise to attract a dominant coalition and when to stick to principled clarity on fundamentals.