Foreign Correspondent: Advocacy for human rights - Lessons from successful campaigns

The human rights movement has brought down dictators, changed government policies and practices, won new international standards to address egregious abuses, and transformed public debate in order to bring human rights issues squarely onto the global agenda. Yet the human rights literature rarely examines the advocacy strategies that have been successful in protecting and promoting human rights. In recent years, human rights victories have ranged from campaigns to bring Charles Taylor to justice and prohibit the use of child soldiers, to those to secure LGBT rights in Nepal and change sentencing practices for juvenile offenders in California. A study of these and other campaigns, including dozens of interviews with the advocates involved, provides some clues regarding the strategies that are most likely to be effective. In particular, they illuminate five key lessons.

First, broad-based and strategic alliances have been at the heart of many of the most successful human rights advocacy efforts. Coalitions, often across borders and bringing together diverse actors, bring strength, credibility, and a unified voice to critical issues. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, for example, united human rights groups with humanitarian organisations working in conflict areas to help persuade governments of the necessity of protecting children from military recruitment and participation in armed conflict. The Coalition helped secure the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, now ratified by 150 countries. The Coalition to End Impunity sought former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s transfer from Nigeria, where he had sought safe haven, to the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague to stand trial for war crimes. The effort brought together international groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with hundreds of African NGOs, including those from the countries most affected by Taylor’s crimes: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria. The transnational effort made clear that Africans affected by the war were deeply committed to bringing Taylor to justice, and that the effort to put him on trial was not just a “Western” agenda.

Secondly, successful campaigns often use “opportunistic” advocacy, utilising outside events or developments as opportunities to move their issue forward. A dramatic example was the organising by Libyan families of prisoners killed in the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre. Beginning in 2004, the families began taking advantage of modest political reforms to push for accountability, filing complaints in Libyan courts and with UN special procedures, organising demonstrations, and using social media to publicise their cause and demands. They won surprising concessions from the Qaddifi regime, including an acknowledgement of the massacre, offers of compensation, and official death certificates for the deceased. In 2011, as the Arab Spring began to sweep Middle Eastern countries, demonstrations by the families – experienced through years of organising– seized on the opportunity and sparked large-scale protests across Libya, leading to events that ultimately brought down the Qaddafi regime.

Third, human rights advocacy depends on credible research, investigation, and documentation. These are among human rights advocates’ most powerful tools. For example, a California campaign to challenge laws that sentenced juvenile offenders to life sentences without any possibility of parole used careful research to show that many of the youth who had received the sentence were not the “worst of the worst.” They found that 59 percent of juvenile offenders serving life without parole had received the sentence for their first-ever conviction, and that over a quarter had been convicted of felony murder, receiving a life without parole sentence despite the fact that it was a co-defendant who physically committed the murder. The research helped convince legislators to adopt a law in 2012 that provided juveniles sentenced to life without parole the possibility of eventual release. It was the first time in decades that the state had acted to reduce criminal sentences.

Fourth, many of the most dynamic and successful campaigns are led by individuals who are most directed affected by human rights abuses. In Nepal, for example, members of the LGBT community were the driving force in addressing homophobia and anti-gay violence, even when under direct threat. In just a few years, they won a Supreme Court decision affirming equal rights for all LGBT citizens, reductions in incidents of anti-gay violence, and the possibility that Nepal would become one of the first countries in the world to allow same-sex marriage. In another example, domestic workers, who are often exploited and excluded from national labor laws, mobilised first at a national level and then internationally to win the ILO Domestic Workers Convention. Adopted in 2011, the Convention finally guaranteed domestic workers equivalent rights to other workers, including the right to a minimum wage, rest days, overtime pay, and limits to their hours of work.

Finally, nearly all the successful campaigns examined utilised multiple points of leverage to create and maintain pressure for change. In many cases, advocates combined advocacy with UN entities, such as the Security Council, Human Rights Council, or UN special procedures, with court challenges, media work, engagement with influential third-party governments or individuals, and other forms of pressure. For example, in the Philippines, local and international NGOs advocated for years to expose rising numbers of extrajudicial executions, and engaged third-party governments to raise concerns directly with the Philippines government. They also worked with the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, whose visit and subsequent report prompted government action to curtail the killings, finally bringing a dramatic drop in the numbers of extrajudicial executions. Similarly, the campaign to bring Charles Taylor to justice successfully engaged a broad range of actors, including the UN Security Council, the Nigerian courts, the African Union, European Union, and individual governments such as the United States to pressure Liberia to request Taylor’s transfer to the Special Court for Sierra Leone and Nigeria to comply with the request.

Human rights advocacy is by no means a science, with guaranteed formulas for success. Each individual advocacy effort must assess available opportunities and the most appropriate tools and advocacy targets. Despite the many variables at play, however, experience suggests that success is more likely when advocacy is based on broad-based alliances, strategic timing and “opportunistic” advocacy, credible research and documentation, organising by those most affected by human rights abuses, and the use of multiple points of leverage.

Jo Becker is author of “Campaigning for Justice: Human Rights Advocacy in Practice” (Stanford University Press, 2013). The book presents nearly a dozen case studies of recent human rights campaigns, with a focus on the practical strategies used to secure concrete advances in human rights.