Look at the travesty of language: ‘The excluded’ are the majority, no?; actually, the ‘included’ are the minority. [By the way: We, human rights activists, are also part of the excluded since our advice is, so far, ignored].

1. Inviting a token ‘voice’ to speak briefly at an international conference or ministerial meeting does nothing to advance the real human right to participation and the true inclusion of community representatives. Although meaningful participation is a key principle of human rights, explicitly stated in the Right to Development (among other UN resolutions), it is the people most impacted by inequalities that are quite systematically excluded and ignored from having a say on decisions and policies that directly affect them.* The clear lack of participation ‘at the table’ of policy-makers is not only the missing element in efforts to achieve the UN’s Agenda to 2030, but it signals a failure of the UN agencies to fulfill their agreed obligations to implement a human rights-based approach. (Case Gordon)
*: Being invisible is different from groups being ignored (they are visible!) Therefore, what is needed is a change in the balance of power so the ignored become protagonists. (Walter Flores)

2. Rightly so, some are of the interesting (and plausible) opinion that public interest civil society organizations (PICSOs) staying absent from the global governance discussions (not exactly level-playing-field dialogue venues) would speak louder than them being coopted to participate as a token in these fora. (Stefano Prato)

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In most of the literature we find calls for ‘more coordinated intersectoral action’. But this means coopting different technical sectors –not considering the community as a sector!

3. Participation processes often cut off participation following the planning phase at the point and time when implementation starts. This frustratingly limits the accountability to grassroots claim holders. Given the emphasis nowadays put on participation in the self-proclaimed ‘equality discourse’ found everywhere we read, we have to be aware of the pitfalls and potential harms of so-called participation processes that are not relevant to equality theory and practice –and not relevant to what we pursue in human rights work.

4. For people-focused policies to address human rights (HR), they must acknowledge the fact that people’s own knowledge, practices and creativity are key driving forces for social change. Since all indications make us doubt the commitment of governments, local community involvement is a prerequisite (i.e., a people-centered and inclusive participation). (Stineke Oenema)

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5. The guiding principle of any successful development action is the following: The material force has to be in the masses and the moral force in their organized movement(s). (S. Rodríguez, 1840) It is only when having recognized and organized their own forces as a social force that claim holders will no longer separate their social force from their political force –and this marks the beginning of human emancipation. (adapted from Karl Marx, 1843)

6. The above applies to true claim holder participation which entails, not only being free from coercion or manipulation, but being directly involved in decision-making before plans are made, having the technical and legal knowledge required to make decisions, and ultimately reserving the right to withhold consent.**
**: In the absence of the right to say NO, participatory methods can be empty and meaningless or, at worst, smokescreens for elite control in which elites merely provide information on decisions already made. (INESCR)

7. We find an illustrative example of saying NO in Guatemala where groups in rural areas have decided to mind no more about the so many technical documents on participation. They have instead organized into groups of right-to-health-community-defenders that de-facto engage in reclaiming public services by deciding on issues in their health services. They collect information on all good and bad aspects of those services and open channels of engagement with duty bearers. Since they are not regularly invited, they claim their spaces of influence. They have variously engaged the National HR Commission, the judiciary, the MOH authorities. Furthermore, educators do not come to their communities from the city; the educators are local natural leaders. Activists in the capital do not go to speak with the authorities ‘on behalf of the people’; local leaders are trained to do their own demanding. The focus is on raising consciousness so as to be able to challenge politicians, for example, asking them: “Have you been in a public hospital or clinic?” These local leaders understand the local health care scene and the providers in rural areas (who, by the way, often also are victims, i.e., claim holders). (Walter Flores)

A relevant aside

8. These days, we find a growing number of group initiatives struggling for the commons (land, water, other). These are civic movements pursuing actions that represent the de-facto growing expression of people’s resistance against the commodification of resources and the privatization of services that affect their living conditions. These initiatives are not based on the historically-more-traditional working-class-power-struggles aimed at coercing the capitalist class by calling for strikes. The demand for change they are placing as part of their civil rights goes beyond these traditional strategies of working-class movements. Movements demanding access to the commons actually channel people’s felt needs for change into pointed citizens’ actions including transnational actions. To be valid though, the commons movement must be able to create a social and political alliance with the HR movement thus increasing the potential to challenge commodification as a HR issue.

We have to make participation the central activity of the political obligation we all have (P. Dardot, C. Laval)

9. As per the above, the challenge, therefore, is to move participation from the realm of a social movements to that of a political movement; At the core, it is a matter of mounting counter-power to power. We must thus speak of the political economy of power on which the political participation and representation of claim holders depends; their participation must thus be binding in character so that it not only allows them to be vocal, but to have the power to influence decisions.

10. In the end, popular mobilization of claim holders will be the only means to reach our goals in the battle for the protection of human rights. (D. Cordova)

11. The monitoring of accountability mechanisms will also have to be made eminently participatory if we want to greatly improve the credibility, ownership and effectiveness of the HR movement. Why? Because this monitoring accountability makes processes more responsive to people’s needs and thus facilitates the potential for real transformation.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

Caveat: Have you noticed? Holding back from providing your own answer when you ask a focus group a question is ‘more difficult than trying to suppress an oncoming sneeze’. (Jerry and Monique Sternin)

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