-I do not have enough energy to surrender. (Luis Manzano, peasant activist in Chile)
-Critics who use their words to hide their cowardice of being in the front and making a difference are of no help in human rights activism. (Shula Koenig) On the other hand, there are honest leaders that promise nothing, but silently perform and do have deeds to show for. (Albino Gomez)

1. Let me start with a caveat: Human rights activists are indeed vulnerable to others’ expressed preferences, ideologies, correct or false perceptions, knowledge and/or ignorance. They must thus be aware that they are vulnerable to taking society’s conventions, policies and hierarchies at not-really-face-value; they must analyze them with care before adopting any of them. (K. Brownlee)

2. A further distinction that activists must rightfully make is when they see that recommendations are coming from a technocratic-academic- ‘pragmatic’ left rather than from a social-movements-left, i.e., from the electoral-left as opposed to the social movements left. The latter incorporates alternative visions of development and human rights (HR) that are not just symbolic statements, but rather things that can and will be operationalized. This is a trend HR activists are seeing particularly regarding indigenous movements; they do no longer see these movements’ inputs as something symbolic, but as something that needs to be put into practice. From the latter movements absence in the main HR discourse emerged a common slogan in the indigenous movement, namely: ‘From Protest to Proposal’. It embodies the idea that they are no longer protesting policies they disagree with, but are putting forward concrete proposals; this is now the driver. (Marc Becker)

Is utopia the principle of all human rights progress and of the design of a better future? (Anatole France)

In the words of Alfred Adler: “It is easier to struggle for a set of principles than to uncritically live by them”.

3. I am not sure if utopia is the principle, but only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. (T.S. Eliot) This is one of the reasons why a true leader is s/he who does no longer complain. This is also why true HR activists are the ones who fail the most …because they are the ones who try the most.*
*: Beware: You actually need a lot of bad ideas in order to get a few good ones. (Adam Grant) “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work”. (Thomas A. Edison)

4. In practice, an activist must foresee that which does not yet exist. S/he has to imagine a future others cannot yet perceive, interpreting reality and making it even more vivid and lasting. (David Ebershoff) Yes, but there also comes the moment for activists when actuality eventually triumphs over their dream(s)… (Philip Roth)

5. Per aspera ad astra or Ad astra per aspera is a Latin phrase that means any of the following: ‘Through hardships to the stars’ or ‘A rough road leads to the stars’. This is why those who embark in big projects to benefit HR must be prepared to face tiresome delays, painful disilusionments and offensive insults –and, what is even worse, the judgment of presumptuous ignorants. (Edmund Burke, 1729-1797)

6. So, do HR activists need to become skillful in several ways by, for example, ‘staging creative and provocative acts of civil disobedience’, ‘intelligently escalating our demands once a mobilization is underway’, and/or ‘making sure that short-term cycles of disruption contribute to furthering longer-term goals’? (Mark and Paul Engler) Depending on circumstances, perhaps yes. But, nevertheless, HR activists must question the dubious assumption coming from the mass protests tradition that sheer numbers will win the day. The ‘numbers obsession’ leads to mass marches with big drama instead of starting a campaign with smaller numbers, less drama and more planning –to then win. Some Occupy Wall Street leaders saw the opportunity of disrupting the ‘One percent’ at a small political cost. But, as we know, the prevailing culture of Occupy prevented building a lasting and enduring mass movement –so far. (George Lakey)

7. Moreover, the traditional political structures have failed us in HR. Nothing new there. So, understandably, there is widespread discontent. The challenge for moving discontent-with-this forward has, by default, fallen on ‘civil society’ –a somewhat nebulous entity. Certainly, ‘public interest’ civil society can play a radical role, as we have seen in the case of the Occupy movement and other contemporary mass mobilizations. But, beware, such mass actions can also easily play a conservative role by appeasing or placating discontent by then opting for various state-funded welfare initiatives. There is no obvious litmus test to decide what the best HR role for public interest civil society is. (Matthew Anderson)

8. Umberto Eco rightfully said that getting social networks mobilized to demand gives the task to their leaders to talk to legions of disaffected men who previously only talked small talk with no relevance to their communities in bars with a glass of beer or wine in their hands. (Choose your own equivalent venue for women…).

Activists-led direct actions are seen in all effective public interest civil society organizations and social movements

Not surprisingly, these Readers always make a strong pitch for activism as the most reliable foundation for analysis, prescription …and direct action.

9. Do HR activists really combine penetrating research, formidable intelligence, incremental information, and direct action? (Intelligence not in the sense as used in the Central Intelligence Agency…) Actually, no. But, as the most effective operators within the HR movement, they seek contacts with everybody who counts and seems to be respected and even recognized by their most aggressive adversaries. This is a lesson taught in different ways by Gandhi and by Mandela, as well as equally historically by the fights for universal suffrage. Direct action does not have to involve breaking current law, but it often does, when, at times, the latter is unreasonable and unfair. So, should all HR organizations that want to make a difference remain reasonable? Would they then contribute to the problems they seek to solve? (Geoffrey Cannon)

10. Conventional wisdom artificially erects a high wall between scholarship and activism. (But the era of scholar activism is here…). The same conventional wisdom makes us believe that the terrorists are always those resisting control by the established political order, and never those that are exercising authority oppressively and violating HR with impunity. Consequently, governments give much more weight to relationships that bolster their security capabilities than they do to matters of international morality, HR, equality and law. (adapted from Richard Falk)

11. Let me predict: When actively joining the ranks of HR activism, you are setting yourself up (fortunately so, for us already in it) to add yourself to the growing contingent of mentors of the upcoming generation. This, so that our youth
• not only better understands, but practices solidarity, the respect for mother earth and regains faith in the future, as well as
• rescues and revalorizes the collective hope in HR so badly lacking right now when consumerism, social media, individualism, extractivism, impunity of HR violations and injustice reign supreme. (Eduardo Espinoza)

12. Yes, our criticism has become sharper and our demands have grown. But we still face a great deal of atomization that separates us into too many small groups to make collective action successful, i.e., making a substantive difference. We are still fragmented. (Alejandro Korn)

This brings this Reader to the thorny issue of the role of NGOs in human rights work, especially international NGOs

We live in a confusing world of public interest NGOs (PINGOs), international NGOs (INGOs), business interest NGOs (BINGOs) and dishonest or ‘briefcase’ NGOs (DINGOs).

13. Let us embark in a (I recognize partial) reality check:
Fact: The corporatization of civil society has tamed the ambitions of INGOs; too often it has made them agents rather than agitators of the system. (CIVICUS)
Fact: The danger we face through the advocacy carried out by INGOs is one of becoming tools of more sophisticated political actors.
Fact: With the lines between business and politics being blurred, we increasingly see PINGOs voices being relegated to the margins in discussions on the post-2015 agenda and other global matters. (Not so for INGOs). (J. Naidoo)
Fact: INGOs have a hegemonic stranglehold on national civil society’s involvement in international affairs. In that, they pursue interests of their own.
Fact: To some extent, international organizations such as trade unions, farmers or women’s unions provide a counterbalance to INGO dominance IF they are not dominated by their rich world counterparts. Civil society organizations (CSOs) in the global South are too often merely INGOs puppets. What this means is that they do not get the attention and respect they deserve. The systemic predominance of INGOs perpetuates the status quo in the global arena; it actually strengthens it. INGOs supplant the voices and role of those rendered poor in international affairs in various ways. At the root of this power is their funding for southern CSO partners. However well-meaning INGO managers may be, their influence is systemic and too often patronizing. (A. Tujan)
Fact: Some major INGOs continue to approach economic and social rights in ways that do very little to change the marginality of those rights in the development field.
Fact: INGOs want to be seen as ‘whitewater rafts’ instead of ‘supertankers,’ working in the spaces between governments, civil societies and markets, bridging across different geographies and constituencies, and focused on embedding values of equality, sustainability and rights into larger systems: but are they really?** (Adriano Campolina)
Fact: PICSOs and social movements are basically tired to be treated as ‘allies’ without, de-facto being incorporated in the big decision-making processes.
**: The way I see it, INGOs are too small to be agents of economic transformation; too bureaucratic to be social movements; banned from politics because of their charitable status and structurally removed from the societies they are trying to change. They end up sitting uncomfortably in the middle as the real action takes place around them –doing what they can to save lives, speak-out and build on small successes in the process. For those convinced by the argument that immediate lifesaving is a better option than long term social transformation this strategy may be attractive, but most of the people I talk to inside international agencies are not persuaded. (Michael Edwards)

Progressive public interest civil society organizations and social movements must be recognized and supported as vital partners in achieving the necessary human rights transformations

14. Especially actors from protest-oriented-social-movements are more effective and transparent in influencing international political processes, so much so that these broad social movements are needed to address delicate power relation issues including those within transnational INGOs. They are thus the ones who rise to the great and urgent challenges humanity is facing. (R. Ranke)

15. If we take the example of health, a robust public interest civil society can and must fulfill eight essential global health functions. These include:
• producing compelling moral arguments for action;
• building coalitions beyond the health sector;
• introducing novel HR-based (right to health-based) policy alternatives and ensuring these are applied;
• enhancing the legitimacy of global health initiatives and institutions;
• strengthening national and local systems for health;
• enhancing accountability systems; and
• acting on the commercial determinants of preventable ill-health and malnutrition; (Julia Smith)

NGOs bottom line

16. INGOs urgently need to focus their efforts much more on advocating for the ‘basic building blocks of HR work’, namely recognition (of HR violations occurring), institutionalization (of HR-based approaches) and accountability (of duty bearers) before delving into the more sophisticated yet vague SDG-proposed techniques for monitoring and promoting economic and social rights that now preoccupy many an international NGO. (Philip Alston)

17. Moreover:
• A more robust mutual accountability system among PINGOs working on HR is needed.
• Organized PINGOs thus needs to go into deep introspection, as well as into truly realigning themselves with people’s needs and their voices so as to rebuild their legitimacy and trust with people.
• PINGOs thus have to return to the hard, painstaking work of organizing and mobilizing the people, i.,e., unlocking maximum citizens potential, as well as coming up with the tools that will strengthen the struggle for social justice, HR and greater social solidarity. (J. Naidoo)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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