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An emerging architecture for the international human rights movement

Launching the 20th issue of SUR Journal at Ford Foundation headquarters in New York on Oct. 20, from left to right: Lucia Nader of Conectas, Martin Kirk of The Rules, Mallika Dutt of Breakthrough and Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch.

The international human rights movement is wrestling with an essential question: If human rights can only be realized by actual human beings living in specific national contexts, what does it mean to be “international”?

Over the past 40 years, the movement has evolved along a two-prong trajectory. On one hand, courageous, innovative human rights organizations emerged in national settings where human rights abuses were taking place. Sometimes under threat or operating clandestinely, these organizations helped foster social movements and resistance to authoritarian regimes. These organizations—national human rights NGOs—sought to use domestic remedies to address human rights abuses. When they found those remedies unavailable, they turned to the international human rights system to help deliver results back home.

On a parallel trajectory, a different breed of organization was developing: the international human rights NGO. Often working in close contact with partners on the ground, these INGOs helped facilitate and strengthen advocacy at the international level. From the relative safety of the North, these INGOs were able to seek adjudication, mobilize international solidarity, and use the international media to extend their message. Because many of these international organizations had deep connections with influential communities in the North, they grew to have significant power and authority in defining the global human rights agenda.

Each set of organizations had significant comparative advantages. But over time, a number of influential NGOs have been working to redefine “international” and design an architecture for the movement in 21st century.

Two complementary tendencies are at play, which taken together might be called a convergence towards the global middle. Some established INGOs like Amnesty International are moving to the Global South in an effort to be “closer to the ground.” Similarly, international NGOs that are already headquartered in the Global South, like Conectas, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, and Civicus represent an important emerging breed of INGOs.

At the same time, national NGOs are engaging more directly with the international human rights system, and with human rights issues in other countries. Groups like CELS, Dejusticia, the Legal Resources Centre, and the Kenyan Human Rights Commission have increasingly developed international or regional programming that is aimed at influencing global debates in areas such as the right to health, transitional justice, and business and human rights.

Accompanying these shifts, there are fundamental questions of power that this convergence must be encouraged to address. Who determines how the movement is defined and what its priorities are? National NGOs have much to offer global conversations, knowledge and experience culled from their deep engagement in local struggle. To strengthen these kinds of organizations, the movement must shift to building power in the South.

At the same time, as geopolitics becomes more multipolar and emerging powers begin to play important roles in international human rights policy, the movement will need to encourage national actors to engage with their own governments about foreign policy. Organizations like Crisis Action, which seek to identify national partners to collaborate on international advocacy can play a vital role.

In terms of linkages with national social movements, the international human rights movement needs to build on the traditions of global organizations like the International Federation of Human Rights, which prioritizes the global middle where international and national organizations meet. Newer global networks like ESCR-Net and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations are doing the same. Similarly, the women’s rights movement has many examples of organizations operating at the global middle, such as the Association for Women’s Rights in Development.

There is also increasing focus within the human rights movement on business and multinational corporations, which operate globally and have national impacts. The movement needs to be more in tune with these dynamics. Organizations like the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre play a vital role by acting as a focal point for national NGOs to get research and documentation out to the world.

Finally, it is time to assess how the movement is funded, and strategize how to attract more donors.

In the 21st century, the international human rights movement will need to be deeply multipolar, truly diverse, and have more widely distributed agenda-setting power. With continuing convergence, we’re amplifying the necessary dynamics to achieve these ends.

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