Sunday, July 9, 2017

Scholarly Voices: What Does Human Rights Advocacy Look Like Now?

Editors' Note:  This week we run a brief symposium on changes in human rights advocacy in the new era.  We encourage contributions from additional law professors on this topic. We begin with this contribution from Lauren Bartlett.

Image1Threats to human rights have reached a crisis point in the United States, especially for our most vulnerable communities.  Recently,  more than thirty “Anti-Sharia” or “Anti-Muslim” marches were held  across the U.S., the Trump Administration threatened to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and ICE raids continue at an alarming rate.

It is difficult to be strategic while attempting to function in crisis mode.  There is too much to digest and react to on a daily basis, both on a professional and personal level.  Moreover, many U.S. human rights advocates are central players in advocacy organizations and larger movements concentrating on specific legal issues and agendas.  Repeatedly having to face daily emergencies creates immediate demands on advocates’ time and pulls resources away from a human rights focus.

Regardless of, and because of, these pressures, U.S. human rights advocates need to take the time to strategize about where to focus their limited time and resources in the coming months and the year ahead.  Some advocates have been theorizing and writing on this topic.  Yet there does not seem to be any consensus so far.

Some questions to consider in developing human rights advocacy priorities could be:

  • What does effective advocacy for human rights in the U.S. look like in 2017—18?
  • Which human rights strategies and methodologies will be most effective in the current environment?
  • What should be the priorities in terms of collaboration among lawyers and other advocates?
  • Which best practices and lessons learned are most useful in the current environment? Will the lessons learned from 2008-2016 be applicable, or would it be better to go further back and examine lessons learned during the reviews in 2005-2007 with the Bush Administration?

Below are my preliminary thoughts in response to these questions. 

Priority should be given to lifting up the voices of those directly affected by human rights violations and continuing to build the human rights movement through education and advocacy campaigns.  In addition, it is likely that the most effective human rights advocacy will occur at the local and state level.

The Trump Administration and the U.S. Congress are likely to ignore all recommendations from human rights bodies, and it is not likely that any Federal agency will embrace human rights, as was seen previously.  On the other hand, civil society movements may flourish (with community education, leadership, and resources) around Federal rejection of the issues or recommendations.  In addition to civil society, some city and state governments are showing a willingness to embrace international obligations and resist the Federal Government’s rejection of international obligations, which is a testament to the terrific groundwork laid by human rights advocates and others in recent years. 

In terms of my immediate plans for my own human rights advocacy, physically situated as I am at a small law school in a small town in the heart of the conservative Midwest, I plan to focus on human rights education of law students, colleagues and courts, using the language and principles of human rights when citation to human rights instruments and laws is too off-putting.  I will also focus on giving voice to those directly affected, through court cases and other advocacy, as well as building solidarity with individual clients and local community groups. 

What are your human rights advocacy priorities for the coming months and why?  It would be great to hear from a chorus of others.

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