We should be teaching for human rights, not teaching about human rights: a response to Agostini

A response to Nicolas Agostini’s article “The excesses of identity-based activism undermine human rights” and an assertion of what needs to be done to make human rights a reality.

Image by Maruf Rahman from Pixabay 

Billions of potential claim holders—i.e. groups whose rights are violated—and hundreds of human rights defenders are anxious in their fear that human rights for all may be a too-far-to-attain ideal. For them, it is crucial to overcome their anxiety and continue pursuing the human rights goals of justice, equality, and dignity as something that humanity lacks today but could achieve tomorrow. Therefore, it is worth it for both these claim holders and defenders to renew their fight for human rights to be specific and concrete, even if through trial and error. The tools and methods to do so exist. Claim holders are diverse and infinitely more numerous than duty bearers (which are, strictly speaking, states) So, claim holders just have to be mobilized to stand up to demand their rights. 

In this endeavor, it is not that the many roads to get to Rome are full of hurdles for claim holders to overcome; they need to aim for a different Rome. Put differently, human rights defenders trying to advance the progressive human rights agenda cannot idly wait for some future, undefined electoral turn to push ahead. Instead, they would be best positioned to embark on a monumental, global human rights learning effort.

The urgent work is to build a vigorous coalition—including unions, racial and minority justice groups, and grassroots activist organizations—that, having not only voice but influence, is dedicated to launching a global, human rights learning campaign that will push for a new popular, direct democracy movement.

This brings me to my confusion about Agostini’s article, which asserts that ‘identity-based and subjective claims are undermining human rights causes.’ Despite rereading the article with attention, I simply could not understand where he wanted human rights activists to go from there.

Let me start with a few things I agreed with. Not everybody shares the same understanding of human rights protections, and his presentation of the methods used in human rights work is correct as depicted. I also agree with the importance of  differentiating equality from equity,  the latter being a social justice and not a human rights concept. And finally, I agree that “the truth” is not only the activists’ truth.

What is unclear to me is his assertion that human rights protect us, but not from emotional harm; that the exclusive use of subjectivity undermines these rights, because by exclusively relying on subjectivity, one enables those who want to destroy human rights.

Agostini further tells us that theoretical approaches to human rights start from their conclusions and are thus flawed and that many of us are unable to deal with adverse opinions. And then, at the end, I read that the human rights movement must find the right balance between subjective experiences and objective standards.

The conflict remains unresolved. Agostini does neither offer a solution to what we, as human rights defenders, are supposed to do differently come next Monday morning nor does he offer examples of  how identity-based movements undermine human rights causes.

My proposal to launch a new human rights learning campaign that centers on empowering claim holders to proactively demand their rights diametrically departs from Agostini’s piece of advice in that it proposes a concrete, objective roadmap for the future of human rights. Details on its content can follow.

Only the constant practice of such a people-centered participatory approach will ultimately overcome the limits of existing flawed development capitalist models and theories.

It is important to keep in mind here that, through the learning, we ultimately must create consciousness about the need to build counterpower to the neoliberal order that  prioritizes market considerations over human rights. To get there, it is indispensable to mount an aggressive human rights learning campaign for claim holders around the world that will address the political aspects of getting the indivisible array of human rights fulfilled. 

Only the constant practice of such a people-centered participatory approach will ultimately overcome the limits of existing flawed development capitalist models and theories. At the same time, political actors and parties need to be prodded and supported. If this development sounds unlikely or too difficult, I would counter that by saying that maintaining the status quo will slowly and surely see a continued rise of inequalities to untenable levels.

To be clear: At the end of the day, we should be teaching for human rights, not teaching about human rights. Human rights learning is, therefore, not about perpetuating the practice of holding endless conversations in a language that is only understood by us, the ‘iniciati’, which brings me back to my critique of Agostini, namely that ‘identity-based and subjective claims are undermining human rights causes.’

Bottom line, the challenge in front of us is to generate popular alternative human rights work strategies and the corresponding set of tactics to implement them. But to make a difference, remember that standing alone changes little; so do network with other like-minded activists in this field.



Claudio, born in Chile and currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, is a pediatrician, a freelance public health consultant, and a human rights activist. He is also a co-founding member of the People’s Health Movement and the author of the blog, Human Rights Readers.


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