With nationalism rising, do global human rights still have mass appeal?


To countless global citizens, human rights were communicated as palatable practices that ordinary individuals could plug into whenever catastrophe erupts.

Transnational human rights organizations assume that ordinary people care about strangers suffering far away. And they have a basis for this faith: NGOs have cultivated this sensibility through a generation of advocacy campaigns. During acute moments of crisis, massive Western audiences have transformed into “a constituency of compassion,” as Sir Bob Geldof remarked during the public fervor around the 1985 Ethiopian famine; memorably, similar constituencies also arose for South Africa, Somalia, Bosnia, and Darfur. For this to be possible, international norms were translated for those outside of diplomatic, academic, and legal circles. Today, while the world experiences no shortage of atrocity, large-scale mobilizations around human rights issues feel more rare than they once were, prompting a critical question: do human rights still have mass appeal?

Documentation and reporting—“naming and shaming—hinge on the public’s belief in human rights; or at least, a general distaste for brutality and humiliation. NGOs encourage and develop this perspective to leverage during campaigns. The public resonance of what human rights are and what they mean provides a foundation for organizations to make demands of elected officials.

However, the foundation of transnational human rights advocacy is deeply shaped by consumer capitalism, weakening its potential to agitate for change. After all, neoliberalism and human rights emerged at the same moment and shape one another over time: the market became a space for exercising moral inclination, and human rights practice repurposed commercialized platforms for advocacy. Corporations adopt citizenship standards and produce goods that are ethically sourced, green, and dolphin safe. And, emblematic of our time, the defense of dignity is packaged as a convenient and fun pastime, requiring as little as possible from individuals who express concern for human well-being, but only for a moment.

Neoliberalism and human rights emerged at the same moment and shape one another over time: the market became a space for exercising moral inclination, and human rights practice repurposed commercialized platforms for advocacy".

Mass appeal is central to the scope of transnational human rights. To countless global citizens, human rights were communicated as palatable practices that ordinary individuals could plug into whenever catastrophe erupts. This formula provided simple tools and accessible platforms that never upset the status quo. The strategy insisted that human rights advocacy should be easy and enjoyable , consciously detached from its more radical impulses. Advocacy practices fit comfortably into a global society structured by neoliberal capitalism, never questioning root causes, challenging distribution of resources, or pushing back on the systemic exercise of power.

We’ve all witnessed this, and most of us have participated too. Benefit concerts, merchandise, celebrity spokespersons, graphic images of suffering, and branded advertising elevated and diffused the notion of caring about others. Deploying these tactics, human rights rose to the status of a mainstream cause alongside issues like environmentalism and animal welfare. However, the incipient awakening experienced by an audience learning about a civilian massacre or city under siege becomes commodified when NGOs present commercialized engagement opportunities. Rather than a collective action, human rights advocacy is an individualistic practice with self-satisfying features. If moral obligations to these distant sufferers are fulfilled by attending a pop music festival or affixing a bumper sticker to our car, then we risk substituting action for the appearance of action. As routine as these formulas had become—crisis, imagery, campaign, concert, celebrity, rinse, repeat—they may be the remnants of an era now behind us.

Globalization promised cosmopolitanism, but gave us market fundamentalism and, with it, deepened the psychological penetration of consumer capitalism. The impact of these forces affected the consumer’s desire for coming together. Attacks on organized labor became cornerstones of popular public policy. Greed and wealth accumulation were projected as public goods. This cultural tide rippled across Western societies from the late 1970s on, presenting an inhospitable environment for movement building and altruism. Yet, the global human rights community also blossomed during this period, a perplexing development made possible by lacquering human rights with a fresh coat of varnish to match the ideological values of the period. Mainstream human rights advocacy was designed to accommodate neoliberalism, not to confront it.

As cosmopolitan dreams give way to nationalist fears, globalization itself faces a mounting challenge. These forces openly oppose porous borders, free trade, regional integration, and other forms of transnationalism. In their most reactionary articulation, opponents of globalization believe that the international has usurped authority and aims to override sovereignty. This view declares the necessity to reassert autonomy and resist foreign power. To many, this sounds profoundly paranoid, but this sentiment also runs through critiques of human rights. Proposals to re-ground human rights in the local and national were anticipated even prior to Brexit and Trump.

Debates about shifting resources away from the major transnational NGOs played out in the (web)pages of OpenGlobalRights from as early as January 2015. This critique suggests that the international has grown into a hulky behemoth with interests that do not naturally align with the interests of human rights promotion writ large: dictating what issues become causes, controlling the flow of crucial funding, and squeezing out frontline defenders. To grassroots movements, the international often feels colonial, representing an invasive force whose source of authority rests elsewhere; undemocratic, shadowy, alien. Suddenly, human rights observers share awkward space with right-wing nationalists.

Expressing concern across borders for the welfare of distant others was once fashionable but, as walls go up and societies retract, global citizen engagement may well be the next victim of this new nationalist resurgence. To respond to this shift, it’s insufficient to alter financial flows or open offices in new countries. The human rights community must profoundly re-think the relationships it cultivates with the public and see individuals as subjects, not just as objects to target in campaign work. At least three moves are necessary to bring this into being:

  • Treat local human rights activists as agents of change, directly nurturing their ideas and supporting their priorities rather than just giving them transactional roles.
  • Invest in infrastructure dedicated to organizing and movement-building, following in the footsteps of labor unions or other contemporary examples, including the Border Network for Human Rights.
  • Learn from grassroots movements, implement these lessons, and upend the gatekeeper model.

Human rights victories won’t be won without a community of individuals willing to get off their couches and reach outside of their own convenience. The structure of the human rights community today is oriented around major NGOs, but a global movement for human dignity must have human beings at its center. Human rights can strengthen its foundation at local levels and build a transnational movement from the ground up, recognizing and cultivating the agency of each person. This vision for a human rights community demands prioritizing a movement-building strategy that resists commodification and refuses the expediency provided by platforms of mass consumption.