Doing the Rights Thing: Approaches to Human Rights and Campaigning

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This report is about the current state of human rights and the advocacy campaigns to end various abuses to these rights. It challenges views that give authority exclusively to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and reductionist views that take the subsequently framed body of international human rights law as sacrosanct. In this monograph I suggest that this is an incomplete and therefore insufficient view of human rights; that the struggle for human rights exists in historical, political and cultural contexts that may variously challenge or lend support to perspectives on human rights. To argue this, I have presented three accounts: a brief historical overview of human rights; a close reading of a key human rights organisation; and accounts from a recent human rights campaign in Australia. History shows human rights are far from stable and permanent. Human rights are fought for and realised, or not, in different ways at different times. Variously, the language of rights has prompted ferocious opposition as well as inspired and legitimised campaigns for fundamental freedoms. By most measures, it has not been a tale of untrammelled progress towards a final recognition and realisation of rights. The questions of what rights are, and how we know this, remains fundamentally unresolved. These debates continue in contemporary societies. A close reading of Amnesty International acts as a case study for the examination of human rights campaigns in the post-World War Two period. The Amnesty International story coincides with the development of the international human rights regime and is widely regarded as being an overwhelming success. Amnesty International’s accolades over the decades are well deserved. In this report its methods are analysed as an example of a type of approach to human rights that is widespread. But upon examination, this story suggests that the emphasis on an internationalising, all-encompassing, universalising set of obligations is not without significant drawbacks. This is particularly so when the international rule of law is met with the challenges of local or national political frameworks and cultural values. There are alternatives to this universalising approach. They are not necessarily in conflict with international human rights principles. They use additional arguments, strategically selected with optimal (but perhaps not ideal) outcomes in mind. They are based on principles that might initially be unexpected: national interest, family values, economic rationalism and the importance of democratic legislatures. These are seen in the third account presented here, in relation to campaigns in 2006 by A Just Australia, Chilout and GetUp for refugees’ human rights. These examples suggest that smaller, nimbler campaign organisations, focused on concrete human rights outcomes, can strategically and successfully employ discourses that are designed to fit with the local political and cultural settings.
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