The international human rights imaginary and the international human rights movement

The international human rights movement is in a period of internal contestation and realignment, even as the human rights project suffers external political threats from rising authoritarianism, popular nationalism, religious extremism and the like.

The internal crisis is a crisis of legitimacy. Human rights advocates that work in the traditions of the international human rights movement—meaning those of us who are North-based and use a legalistic approach to address human rights violations in the Global South—are being challenged. Challenges come from human rights groups and affected communities in the Global South to answer questions about what we work on: why do international NGOs champion issues that aren’t their priorities? Why emphasize accountability and not peace? Why vindicate violations of political rights and not attack economic inequality? We also are challenged to answer for our practice forms, i.e., how we conduct our work. Local groups experience our working methods as extractive, our advocacy as paternalistic rather than empowering, and our partnerships with them as often repeating uncomfortable dynamics of racial hierarchies and neocolonialism.

Why emphasize accountability and not peace?

Our fallback positions to defend these critiques rest on values and principles that do not provide suitable answers. Our theory of change—the core set of values around which the international human rights movement revolves—was not made to answer these questions. The international human rights movement’s theory of change offers definitive answers to who is entitled to denounce violations, what harms constitute legal violations, and which are most important. It also tells us something about the best ways we should address these injustices.  

The movement emerged in the context of the Cold War and mobilized the discourse of universal rights to challenge state abuses of civil and political rights in both the Eastern and Western blocs. The imaginary is a product of this era and the moment’s key actors brilliantly marshalled human rights mobilization to influence international policy and, ultimately, state behavior. The Berlin Wall fell over 30 years ago, and world politics has changed drastically. Yet, the essential theory of change that animated the movement in its early days continues to undergird traditional international human rights advocacy.

So what is the international human rights imaginary? As reflected in the values and practices of dominant players like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, this imaginary can be captured in the following statements: (i) human rights are global in reach; (ii) human rights are universal rights claims of moral purity made by altruists against states for extreme violations of physical integrity and essential civil freedoms against the innocent; (iii) human rights practice is carried out consistent with a commitment to principles of legality and does not promote a political ideology; (iv) human rights organizations seek to influence global affairs by publicizing abuses; and (v) human rights work requires expert knowledge.

What the international human rights imaginary lacks is an account of its own power and the principles that should guide when and how organizations should deploy it. 

These ideas are embedded in the predominant international human rights practices, such as monitoring and reporting, norm generation, and enforcement through human rights litigation and accountability for international crimes. International human rights organizations innovated and championed these methods with stunning results. It was possible to associate the most influential of these practices with international organizations—Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize for its campaign against torture. “Name and shame” documentation strategies are practically synonymous with Human Rights Watch. However in recent years, groups in the Global South have become influential actors on the international stage in their own right. They are developing their own agendas, working methods, and ideas for engaging international stakeholders that clash with traditional approaches. This evolution puts international human rights organizations in need of a theory of change that accommodates this new dynamic. Our core values do not suffice.

What the international human rights imaginary lacks is an account of its own power and the principles that should guide when and how organizations should deploy it. We are driven by commitments to rights realization that allow us to defend our choice of issues on which to focus. The human rights commitment to legalism insulates us from charges launched by local partners and affected communities that our efforts are misguided or, worse, harmful. For example, HRW denounced the Colombian Peace Accords for their failure to provide adequate accountability for human rights violators, despite support for the Accords by Colombian human rights groups. Local groups had no principled recourse within the vocabulary of the human rights imaginary to voice their fury. Intervention by international human rights NGOs thus mimics neocolonialism.

The paradigm of cooperation between mainstream international NGOs and domestic groups is being contested. The conventional terms have been that North-based groups rely on smaller, lesser-resourced, South-based human rights groups for access to information, the lifeblood of international advocacy. International NGOs use their access to international elites and media to prompt an international response, and local groups and affected communities receive the benefits of international intervention that they otherwise couldn’t activate.

Perhaps we need a theory of solidarity that can account for the liberation politics that many groups in the Global South use human rights to achieve. Our notion of solidarity is muddled. Sometimes it means a transnational commitment to human rights principles, like solidarity to abolish the death penalty. Sometimes it means a commitment to achieve a political outcome, like the solidarity of the anti-Apartheid movement.

We need to yoke our work and working methods to strengthen the work of local human rights groups, who bear the brunt of whatever policy or legal rule is promulgated in Geneva, New York, or The Hague. Like the legal concept of a margin of appreciation, international groups need a principle of solidarity that creates a zone of deference within which they should yield to local groups.

Where reasonable alternative methods for advancing human rights or interpretations of international law exist, international organizations, at a minimum, should not intervene to thwart local human rights leaders. As an intermediate form, we should carefully leverage what we do best in service of community-led priorities. This requires centering our work around South-led transnational solidarity coalitions where the strengths of international groups strategically are deployed. Traditional practice forms endure in part because of their many benefits. We shouldn’t abandon these but deploy them more explicitly in service of South-led human rights movements. For example, where local human rights defenders cannot publicize abuses without risk of retaliation, international organizations can and should document abuses, as prioritized by local groups, to a global audience.

However, if we are to take solidarity as a core principle of the imaginary, we need to go further. International groups should challenge themselves to invent new practice forms that disrupt old patterns that reinstantiate North-South power binaries. Can we value local knowledge as we value technical knowledge of international bureaucracies? If local groups are using human rights to address root and structural causes of human suffering, are we able to address distributive justice demands by innovating the international human rights canon of norms and institutions? How would this form of solidarity change not just what we do, but how we do it? There is much uncertainty, but maintaining our current course will result rightly in further erosion of our legitimacy. We need to overcome the limits of what we have imagined human rights to be so that we continue to be relevant to a global rather than merely international human rights movement.


This article is part of a series developed in partnership with the Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. The series draws on contributions from scholars and practitioners who participated in the Institute's November 2020 Conference entitled “Human Rights at a Crossroads? A Time for Critical Reflection on the Human Rights Project."