Myth-busting human rights awareness

A set of myths surround debates about public opinion and human rights advocacy that desperately need busting—or at least demand an honest accounting. Human rights advocates fetishize “awareness” as if it alone serves some magical role in halting abuse, and these myths inform projects that collect data on public perceptions and underwrite proposals for effective framing strategies.

But education is not a cure-all for repression and inequality. Publicizing abuse is necessary but insufficient for protecting against it. For instance, there are manyrecent examples of human rights violations committed in plain sight—with photographic evidence—strongly suggesting that the power of witnessing is simply not enough to stop abuse. This dogma drove the Save Darfur Coalition to slap slogans about genocide on bumper stickers and t-shirts, and compelled Invisible Children to try and make Joseph Kony famous. Similarly, if data capture positive public support for human rights, that information is only useful if popular opinion is operationalized effectively. Thinking, knowing, and seeing are quite distinct from acting, and assuming that a natural causal trigger exists is a dangerously common trope.

A certain faith motivates the desire to spread the human rights gospel into the mainstream. After all, what was once located solely in the realm of revolutionaries, lawyers and diplomats is now a global vernacular for justice and freedom—a tremendous shift and a distinct product of the work of transnational human rights NGOs. It is no accident that the general public has an opinion about human rights. Advocates work doggedly to introduce ordinary people to the human rights framework, building a base within civil society from which to operate. But how does this serve the human rights cause?

Two arguments help explain the power of public opinion for human rights: the presumed role for cultural and coercive mechanisms. Cultural arguments rest upon the assumption that the more aware the public is about human rights, the less tolerant they are likely to be about violation, and the less likely states are to violate. Naming and shaming tactics are examples of this—the deeper diffusion of norms, the stronger the advocate’s influence. Transforming cultural attitudes about human rights is intended to have an indirect political impact, but changing norms takes a very long time.

Mass support for human rights, on the other hand, can equip advocacy organizations with coercive tools to deploy in practice, namely the names and bodies of its supporters. Turning popular opinion into mass engagement on human rights is the true task of NGOs. Urgent Action letter writing, for example, relies on the notion that there is strength in numbers. The more letters written for a political prisoner, the higher the likelihood will be of securing her release. The same applies in terms of phone calls to elected officials, signatures on a petition, and participants at a protest. By applying direct political pressure on abusers, by raising the costs of inaction, public support can express its most promising features. Numbers matter if they pose a credible threat of disruption, as in general strikes or obstructionist marches. Absent the threat, they are simply numbers on a page.

But this doesn’t seem to be terribly important for many advocacy groups, many of which are increasingly geared towards generating buzz through traditional and new media as a substitute for direct action. The emphasis on advertising and social networking as messaging platforms for human rights campaigns portrays a compulsion to gather followers, hits and likes. Broad public support for human rights is often a false flag—a red herring that represents a mass movement when in fact all that exists is a loosely bound herd. When collective action would be most effective, we can only muster the meaningless acts of atomized individuals.

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Many advocacy groups, portraying a compulsion to gather followers, hits and likes, are increasingly geared towards generating buzz through traditional and new media as a substitute for direct action.

NGOs encourage supporters to feel as though they are a part of something, to sell an image of a grassroots, democratic movement. 

However, Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch suggests that this lack of collective action is by design and not by default. He argues that elites are the main targets of human rights advocacy and that NGOs shouldn’t bother “building a mass movement” due to resource constraints. Given the enormous activity committed to cultivating audiences for human rights content, by Human Rights Watch and many other organizations, this seems like a strange comment to make. What, then, is the role of the millions of followers on HRW’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram accounts?

This is where the difference between awareness and mass mobilization really matters. After all, outreach is a key strategy of many prominent human rights NGOs, including Amnesty InternationalDoctors without BordersUnited to End GenocideEnough ProjectInvisible Children, and Oxfam. Human Rights Watch itself issues calls for “membership”. But they don’t mean “members” in any meaningful sense. What they really mean is donors. And this is no great surprise. NGOs need money to function and individual givers are an important source of revenue. So if they are not really building a mass movement, and they really just want donors rather than movers and shakers, why bother using the language of membership at all?

It seems that the appearance of public support is hugely important even to NGOs uniquely oriented toward elite modes of advocacy. NGOs encourage supporters to feel as though they are a part of something, to sell an image of a grassroots, democratic movement. Popular opinion then gives advocates a veneer from which to operate and to use as leverage in discussions with elites—it is a stand-in for an actual movement. Public attitudes can point to membership numbers and demonstrate how many people “care” about human rights. Fundraising figures may be strongly correlated to popular opinion, but we must be cautious about the conclusions we draw. Money helps NGOs perform coercive politics, but we must not overstate the extent to which popular opinion is any more than a symbolic nod to the resonance of human rights norms.

Public opinion is a reflection of the strength and viability of human rights norms if its proponents are put to work in the service of dignity. Popular attitudes about human rights do not necessarily correspond with pressure for political change. This myth cannot be assumed away, nor should it drive advocacy efforts on its own. Raising awareness among the mainstream should be considered useful only when paired with the appropriate apparatus with which to realize human rights goals.