A seat at the table: Shifting narratives on human rights defenders at the United Nations

National flags at the entrance of the UN office in Geneva, Switzerland in 2017. Credit: TravelFlow / iStock

Now more than ever we need multilateralism and the United Nations (UN) to find solutions to global health, climate, and geopolitical crises. Human rights defenders are key partners with whom the UN should work on these solutions. As essential agents of change who promote dignity and justice in their communities, contribute concrete ideas from the ground, and hold decision-makers accountable, they must be granted safe passage and a seat at UN discussion tables.

Yet many governments attempt to silence and stigmatize defenders, seeking to control international narratives by referring to them as terrorists, separatists, political activists, or extremists. UN spaces such as the Human Rights Council teem with talk of the arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances, and murder of defenders. 

In a 2019 Media Cloud survey, an analysis of English-language online media looked at the top one hundred words associated with the term “human rights defender.” The winners were: crimes, protests, violence, and violations. Meanwhile, the words dignity, equality, and justice did not even feature on the list, despite these being the very things that people who promote and protect human rights are striving for. 

Whether by opponents, allies, or the media, defenders are thus overwhelmingly depicted as either victims or people who are “against” something. The term defender itself is a double-edged sword; designed by the UN to grant protection, it also normalizes the idea that people who protect human rights are perpetually under attack, as if this were an inevitable consequence of the work they do.


Reclaiming the narrative

Whether as community activists, NGO workers, or diplomats, most of us who support human rights are involved in putting stories out into the world. Like creating a mosaic, each tile we lay or story we tell can be different based on our particular needs at a given time. But eventually a larger picture—or narrative—starts to form. If we keep laying down tiles of a similar tone, that tone will end up dominating. Our task today is to be mindful of each tile we are placing and to think of the larger narrative we want to be crafting.

Violations will always need to be called out at the UN, but rights practitioners and diplomats who support human rights can and must get better at contextualizing these within a more effective narrative. To this end, together with the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) team and the support of the Ford Foundation, we compiled a new narratives guide

Drafted and refined through a series of interviews and surveys with diplomats, UN experts, and special rapporteurs, as well as discussions and focus groups with organizations working closely with defenders and the UN, this guide gives messaging tips and strategies for civil society and diplomats alike. When and where possible, our four key recommendations for crafting more effective messages are:

1. Focus more on what the people who defend human rights are trying to achieve (and less on the persecution inflicted)

2. Explain that anyone and everyone can help protect and promote human rights (don’t describe defenders as a separate category of people)

3. Be specific about who or what is causing the problems (don’t use ambiguous terms like “shrinking civil society space”)

4. Talk more about creating solutions (and less about all the things that are broken)


Diplomat stories

The first pilot workshop born of the guide was designed with ISHR and targeted at Geneva-based UN diplomats. While a diplomat’s role is primarily that of a messenger, going back and forth between their capital (home government) and their UN counterparts, a majority of those we consulted reported feeling able to impact both the positions taken at the capital level and at the UN by their mission. We wanted diplomats to leave the workshop both convinced of the need for active narrative change and having defined concrete opportunities for deployment within the next three to six months.


Who’s your favorite activist?

Collectively, the people who defend human rights deliver profound positive change. We should be reminding audiences that, from dismantling authoritarian regimes to establishing the weekend and women’s right to vote or ending apartheid in South Africa, advances were won by people who were willing to agitate and push to improve the world. People who in their day were branded troublemakers or naive are often judged by history far more favorably. Making diplomats and decision-makers aware of where they sit on that continuum of progress is helpful. If they reflect about their position on this timeline, then they should realize that what comes next depends on the choices they make here and now.

To set a values-based tone, workshop participants were asked to talk about a historical or contemporary activist who had directly impacted them, their family, or their community. Values-based messages are not magic wands that will convince everyone of our causes, but they have been shown to be the most effective way to persuade people who are undecided on a topic or don’t have entrenched views. This means that when we have a strategy based on energizing our supporters and exposing our opponents as the outliers they are, values-based messages can help us persuade the people in the middle. 

When tasked with applying our narrative recommendations to the last three public statements that their mission had produced, the diplomats found that they were easily able to do this. The modifications did not make them exceed their allotted Human Rights Council speaking slots nor—crucially—did they distract from the necessary exposure of violations or pursuit of accountability. The diplomats also identified opportunities for both immediate and long-term deployment of new messaging strategies.  


A seat at the table

A narrative takes time to form and many voices, with much repetition, to take hold. We have seen that it is possible to lay down more effective story-tiles in UN spaces without losing sight of the essential work carried out there. Diplomats’ and human rights practitioners’ messages must work, collectively, toward showing what it looks like for human rights defenders to have a seat at the table—whether that’s a corporate board table, a conflict resolution and peacebuilding roundtable, or the speakers’ table in Room XX at the Palais des Nations.