Human Rights Defenders must shift their framework, to earn the public’s support

April 20, 2015

Open Democracy carries regularly interesting pieces related to human rights defenders (e.g. https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/daysi-flores/hope-as-survival-strategy-for-defensoras-in-honduras), but I draw your attention to a particular pertinent one on the ‘framing’ of the human rights debate. This blog has always taken a special interest in this aspect of human rights work [see e.g. https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/media-framing-and-the-independence-of-the-judiciary-the-case-of-water-boarding/]. This post by Rachel Krys focuses on the United Kingdom but much is relevant to other European countries where similarly there are sustained efforts – with the media leading or at least being a conduit – to give ‘human rights’ either a bad name or at least portray it as something ‘foreign’, ‘European’ [!!] and only necessary for others.

The post “In the UK, public discourse undermines support for human rights” of 20 2015 April is worth reading in full, and so do other contributions to the open GlobalRights’Human Rights: masses or elite movement debate, such as Jennifer Allsopp’s (https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/jennifer-allsopp/hidden-women-human-rights-defenders-in-uk). Some excerpts:

...there is a debate raging within the UK about the need for human rights protections at home, and an increasingly vocal lobby that wants Britain removed from the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisdiction…. But research into what people really think about human rights reveals that about a quarter of people are steadfastly positive about them. …Inevitably, a similarly sized group is robustly negative about human rights.

…If you ignore the approximately 10 per cent of people who simply don’t care at all, you find a much more interesting, and significant group. Around four in ten Brits are very much torn between the two poles of the human rights debate. The research finds that this group is generally positive about human rights in an abstract sense – they agree that rights create a fair society, help to protect people when they’re vulnerable and see most rights as fundamental. However, they also agree with statements suggesting that human rights laws are not doing what they are supposed to do and that the laws are being abused. This group is by far the most sensitive to the way rights are framed, and in an environment where the discourse is so negative, this pulls them to a much more sceptical place.

The research suggests that for many people in the UK, who fall into this ‘undecided’ group, their attitudes vary depending on how relevant they feel human rights are to their lives. It also matters how much they perceive human rights to be about fair treatment and due process. When people in this group hear messages that connect human rights to their everyday lives, they understand rights better and are more supportive of them overall. And this is where the challenge lies. Because although twenty per cent of the discourse is positive, it isn’t telling the stories which we know will resonate with most people…..

.. stories about old people challenging bad treatment, invasive decisions or the intrusion into their private and family life are bound to resonate. Violence against women, and the failure of the police to protect women from domestic violence is a growing concern, so sharing how human rights have helped families get justice are incredibly strong. ….We need a new shorthand, because how the public feel about, and understand a law not only helps in how they use it, but also how they react when it’s under threat. The challenge human rights defenders face in the UK now is to find new ways to reach the people who remain unconvinced. We know what’s missing from the debate; we know what matters to people; now we have to start telling those stories.

I would add that it is not only to tell new or better stories but also how they are presented and disseminated as I have argued in a variety of posts on the importance of images (https://thoolen.wordpress.com/tag/images/).

The author’s conclusion sounds right: “Rights activists must shift their framework, to earn the public’s support”

In the UK, public discourse undermines support for human rights | openDemocracy.

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