By Jose Rafael Espinosa*
Is the human rights movement elitist? This is perhaps one of the most talked about debates in the world of human rights.
According to the critics, the movement is dominated by an elite that, despite its good intentions, often skews human rights and ends up defending certain interests and not others. The elitism translates into a human rights movement that excludes and is often disconnected from the real needs of humans and their rights.
I actually think that it is possible to talk about two distinct debates about elitism in the human rights movement. Untangling the critiques helps provide a clearer framework for the debate and understand what the specific challenges are for the movement to avoid excluding. I think there are different problems that require different “solutions.”
First of all, there is a geopolitical debate. In this case, the critique questions the highly dominant role of the Global North in the creation of the human rights discourse. The Global North, the critique argues, ends up effecting and dominating the human rights movement.
For different reasons, the place of the Global South in human rights is then in the periphery. For some the discourse lends itself to the reproduction of conservative perspectives of the world, as the critics of U2’S Bono “philantro-capitalism have argued .” For others, like Makau Mutua for example, the problem is structural: it represents the ideology of western liberal democracies from the Global North. Some say that, more than ideological, it is a matter of economic and political capital: the Global North organizations are more powerful than the ones in the Global South, since they not only have more money but also greater bureaucratic and political capacity.
These reasons are clearly linked: the Global North movement is easily able to export ideology because it has the political economic resources to do so.
Second of all, there is an institutional debate. Here the critique is not focused on the North, but more generally toward all those institutional practices that have disconnected the movement from the “original” claims of human rights. The movement is elitist, Stephen Hopgood argues in a recent book,because it is dominated by a series of institutional actors (lawyers, academics, human rights organizations, official institutions, from both North and South) that have reduced human rights to a praxis that occurs through and is oriented toward institutional power structures, and that this, in turn, has led to an excessively legalistic and theory driven movement. On the other hand, the “original” social practices by those grassroots actors who maintain the belief in responding to and subverting authoritarian and abusive State practices are increasingly excluded from the movement.
In a prior entry, I commentedon the results of a Foundation Center report that appears to support the first critique, at least with regards to economic capital. The majority of the movement’s funding not only comes from the North, it also mainly stays there. With its money the North not only sets the agenda of the movement, it also keeps most of the money.
Now let’s think about the second debate. Is it true that the movement is increasingly being dominated by this institutional praxis?
I think this is partially accurate. It is true that increasingly human rights are being institutionalized, and that today they rely on a solid and powerful bureaucracy. This bureaucracy is not only a protagonist but also a dominant force.
Nonetheless, it is important to keep two things in mind.
First of all, this criticism begs the question: Are we referring to the human rights movement as excessively institutionalized simply because we are viewing it from an excessively institutionalized perspective (dominant in the North)? The movement also has actors and strategies that do not fit into limited definitions of what the movement is. To paraphrase Sally Engle Merry, in addition to this institutionalized movement, there is also a vernacularmovement that is focused on the “original concerns” using practices and languages that are not institutional.
Secondly, institutional actors are not the only ones that use institutional strategies. If the institutional praxis is sometimes effective, why shouldn’t grassroots organizations use them strategically in an institutionalized world, and even reinvent these practices? Their usage by indigenous groups in prior consultations in Colombia and Ecuador are a good example. These groups move in an institutionalized world: they cite ILO Convention 169 and petition the Inter-American System, but they have redefined the objectives and the terms of the consultations so that they reflect their spiritual and religious beliefs. Consultations should not only contend with environmental impacts, theColombian Kankuamos say, they should also consider the spiritual and cultural impacts on the territory. Or, as the Ecuadorian people of Sarayaku say, consultations should allow for sumak kawsay (good living, harmony between humans and nature). These groups are able to enter and exit the institutional world, combining and reinventing institutional strategies (bringing successful cases before the Inter-American Human Rights Court) with alternative strategies like marches and innovative protests.
Now comes the key question: what are the solutions? In both cases the response is in reaching greater diversity in the movement. However, the way to get there is different.
Regarding the geopolitical debate we need to find a balance between the North and the South. Not just in terms of greater participation of the South in the movement (more spaces, more funding, etc.), but also in trying to avoid the formation of new geopolitical elites in the South. Increasingly countries like Brazil, India, South Africa, and even Colombia, play a more prominent role in the South. We should be careful that they do not become disconnected elites.
Regarding the institutional debate, we need to think of innovative ways to mitigate the pronounced differences between the institutional world and grassroots actors. I do not think it is wrong to maintain a distinction between the two, since generally speaking some sort of specialization and professionalization is healthy. However, in addition to encouraging more partnerships between the two worlds and thinking of novel types of advocacy, it is important to institutionally strengthen grassroots organizations, helping to increase their ability to come in and out of the institutional world, and obviously, reinvent it.
* Jose Rafael Espinosa is researcher at Dejusticia (The Center for Law, Justice and Society)
 According to J. Salm, “Northern NGOs’ power stems from their experiences, their reputation and proven records of success, and their size and global reach”. See Salm, J. (1999). Coping With Globalization: A Profile of the Northern NGO Sector. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 28, p. 91-92.
Photo credit: Aurelien Guichard