Human Rights Advocacy Strategies
For many human rights advocates, it’s perfectly normal to have strong reactions to human rights violations – In fact, this is a natural part of rejecting oppression. Anger, upset and even rage are common. However, human rights advocates have the opportunity to respond with an intervention rather than just reacting to the situation from a personal or emotional level. An intervention is an intentional action towards a desired outcome – often with a goal of preventing something from becoming worse than it already is. There are many ways to intervene when human rights violations occur, barriers to basic needs are present or when a person experiences exclusion, discrimination or marginalization.
Direct Human Rights Advocacy Intervention
In the helping fields, two of the most common forms of intervention are direct services and education. Many individuals and organizations provide these types of services every single day – Homeless shelters, transportation assistance agencies and civil rights organizations are examples. Direct service methods of intervention are generally designed to address an immediate need and often include providing counseling, social service navigation, or tangible goods such as food or housing vouchers. For example, providing a weekly soup kitchen or facilitating a monthly support group for victims of discrimination can both be considered direct service interventions.
On the other hand, education is an intervention designed to provide learners with knowledge, information and tools to become empowered to help themselves. Financial management courses and parenting classes are examples of education. Training is a type of education that is designed to provide the learner with new skills and abilities, and advocacy is a type of education that is designed to encourage the listener or learner to take a specific action. Advocacy often includes encouraging a person to create or support a particular system or policy, or to become more understanding and accepting of their peers.
Not all advocacy is the same, however. For example, a group advocating for laws that prohibit the use of spoons could be considered an advocacy group. But it would not be considered a human rights advocacy group.
Human rights advocacy is an intervention that uses empowerment-based education to encourage stakeholders and decision-makers to take action towards a specific policy or systemic change to defend and secure human rights, ensure access to basic human needs, and to guarantee accessibility and inclusion for all people.
Empowerment-Based Human Rights Advocacy
Human rights advocacy generally includes a commitment to not only assisting the person, group or stakeholder who is immediately experiencing the human rights violation – but also ensuring systemic change occurs so that there are no future victims. Importantly, empowerment-based human rights advocacy recognizes the trauma of experiencing oppression, and aids in the process of healing, ending the cycle of oppression and creating a ripple effect for change. There are four (4) main components of empowerment-based human rights advocacy and education: Affirmation; Information; Opportunity; and Securing Intent.
Human rights advocates provide affirmation of our basic human rights, entitlement to basic human needs, and the right to be free from marginalization and exclusion. This is recognized as an important part of healing from – and rejecting – oppression.
Human rights advocacy includes empowering people – including victims, stakeholders and decision-makers – with as much information as possible about the concepts, technologies, systems, policies, laws and processes with which they are interacting. HRA’s help people understand why something is oppressive, and what can be done to resolve it. Full transparency and ensuring access to complete information are cornerstones of empowerment and an important part of the advocacy intervention.
Opportunity often equals hope – a basic human need. A critical part of human rights advocacy is linking people to existing resources and opportunities, or creating opportunities and resources where no others exist.
The goal of human rights advocacy is to encourage and empower people to decide for themselves to reject oppression and to take positive action. At the same time, human rights advocates also recognize that ultimately the choice is up to them.
A basic framework for engaging in empowerment-based human rights advocacy includes the following steps:
- Establish rapport (relationship) with the appropriate audience, including clients, decision-makers, or the public-at-large;
- Bring to awareness of decision-makers and potential stakeholders that a concept, technology, system or policy is a violation of human rights, restricts access to basic needs, or marginalizes an individual or group;
- Explain how the concept, technology, system or policy is oppressive, and how it does or will impact stakeholders. We do this in a way that resonates with decision-makers and other potential stakeholders;
- Affirm human rights, basic human needs and the importance of accessibility and inclusion for all people;
- Provide relevant information, including opportunities to access tools and resources, and offering to provide human centered solutions when needed;
- Secure an intent to address the presenting issue, opportunity or problem; and;
- Conduct follow up as appropriate to check on the well-being of clients or stakeholders and/or report to stakeholders the outcome of the intervention. Note: Follow-up allows human rights advocates to “close out” a case, mark an issue as resolved, or provide other human rights advocates with a starting place for future efforts if needed.
There are three (3) main intervention strategies human rights advocates commonly use depending on a variety of factors. These strategies include: Hands-On (Direct) Intervention; Amplifying Voices; and Sounding the Alarm.
Hands-On (Direct) Intervention
Hands-on intervention is used when a specific client, person or group has requested the assistance of a human rights advocate. It can also occur when human rights advocates see a need or human rights violation on their own – particularly in their own place of business or when they encounter systems or policies in which they or someone that know are personally impacted, engaged or involved. When a human rights advocate engages in hands-on intervention, the advocate is committing to taking ownership of the “case” and seeing through the process until its end. Generally speaking, hands-on (or direct) intervention includes one or more of the following: Inquiry and Assessment; Research, Linkage and Referral; Asking for Change; Making a Human Centered Policy Proposal; and/or Escalation (if needed).
Inquiry and Assessment
Regardless of strategy – hands-on intervention, amplifying other voices, or sounding the alarm – the first step in human rights advocacy intervention is to initiate an inquiry. An inquiry is a set of questions designed to help human rights advocates fully understand the issue being presented, the current options available, and what steps will best lead to success. Completing the inquiry also ensures human rights advocates exercise due diligence before intervening or responding.
Linkage and Referral
Linkage and Referral is one of the most common strategies human rights advocates use to intervene in response to a request for service or assistance. While there are many challenges in the United States, there are also many federal, state, and local laws that already protect human rights and interests. In addition, there are many issue-based advocacy groups and social service organizations that might already be tackling an issue and have the funds and resources to best intervene. In many cases, it’s possible to “close the case” once the referral has been made successfully and follow up has been completed.
Asking for Change
One of the most important roles in human rights advocacy is helping decision-makers understand the impacts of concepts, technologies, systems, policies and laws have on people they might not have considered. When there are no other resources or services available, it’s up to human rights advocates to lead the charge in creating policy-level and systemic change. This could be within an organization, a department, or even within the state or federal government. Asking for Change is a common strategy used by human rights advocates when decision-makers are likely to come up with their own solutions once they are aware of the problem.
Proposing Human Centered Solutions
Developing and introducing empowerment-based, human centered solutions is also a core responsibility of human rights advocates. This strategy is usually employed when initial “Asks for Change” are met with unresponsiveness or it’s clear an individual or organization is more likely to enact change when a complete solution is proposed to them. When we enact this strategy, human rights advocates provide the individual or agency with a clear human-centered solution to protect human rights, ensure access to basic needs and/or guarantee accessibility and inclusion. NOTE: It can helpful to combine this strategy with Asking for Change – particularly when it comes to determining decision-makers and setting face-to-face appointments.
Human Rights Advocates often work to ensure that they have provided a good faith opportunity for change before resorting to escalation techniques. This also provides human rights advocates with a more powerful standing in their communities when they have first gone through all the appropriate and established channels. However, when a human rights violation is brought to the attention of decision-makers and no action is taken to address the issue in a reasonable amount of time, human rights advocates often consider a number of escalation techniques. Effective techniques include: Calls to Action; Boycotts; and Protests/Demonstrations.
While an “escalation technique” may sound extreme to some, human rights advocacy escalation techniques continue to utilize an empowerment-based approach that includes building rapport, raising awareness about impacts on stakeholders, affirming rights and providing information and opportunities to decision-makers and the community-at-large.
Call to Action
A call to action is issued when we want to encourage stakeholders and supporters to call, email or utilize social media to contact decision-makers to show their support for our “Ask for Change” or “Human Centered Solution”. This effort is most effective when we know for certain the decision-maker is likely to respond favorably to quantity and repetition AND we know for certain our base and supporters are likely to provide high numbers of engagement. It’s important to provide supporters with contact information and talking points about the issue, specifically including the demand and deadline for action.
A boycott is a method of escalation that is most effective when we know our absence and/or the absence of our supporters is certain to have an immediately felt impact on operations, finances and/or public opinion. Generally speaking, a boycott can be structured and communicated similar to a “Call to Action”. However, the boycott should be in place until the demand is met.
Protest or Demonstration
A protest or demonstration is designed to provide positive visibility for the demand, as well as an opportunity for stakeholders to make their voices heard and feel supported. The effectiveness of a protest or demonstration in swaying decision-makers is very much measured by the amount of positive public opinion about the activity. This means the protest or demonstration needs to focus on heavily on humanizing those who have been impacted, messages of hope and community, and bringing out feelings of positive energy. Generally speaking, the protest or demonstration needs to provide a heart-felt connection to potential community supporters, and any demonstration activities should provide a meaningful learning opportunity whenever possible.
As a protest or demonstration organizer, it’s important to recognize we have certain responsibilities to our attendees and the public at large. The first step is contacting local authorities to let them know the details of the event. It’s also important to discuss if any permits are needed. Second, it’s essential to set a positive tone for the event with a clear agenda that includes opening remarks, designated speakers, and other activities. Music, singing and other family-friendly activities can help to create positive visibility and community connection.
NOTE: If the event creates a space for open expression of anger and pain, it is critical to provide a clear message of hope, a path forward, and a tangible opportunity (such as signing a petition or donating to a cause) to close out that portion of the event and to diffuse negative energy. A song, a prayer, or other means of clearing the energy is important. Not doing so can leave participants with no clear path to channel their energy and can lead to riots, violence and destruction. This is the exact opposite of what the event is intended to do. In addition, how we protest or demonstrate matters. Stopping people from getting home from work or taking their kids to school can alienate would-be supporters. Even if they generally care about our cause, they may no longer feel like we care about them, which may make them less likely to support or engage in our future efforts. Property damage and litter also have an adverse impact on public response and support.
When using “Protest or Demonstration” as an escalation technique, it’s important to set forward a path of hope, healing, opportunity and positive change, and to ensure the message and demand remain the forefront of the event.
Amplifying Other Voices
“Amplifying Other Voices” is a strategy human rights advocates often use when they come across or are asked to support hands-on intervention work being done by other human rights advocates, issue-specific advocates, activists, policy-makers, elected officials, or others. Before human rights advocates lend their time, energy, and support or platform, it’s important to exercise due diligence by completing their own inquiry and assessment and making sure the proposed solution meets the Human Centered Policy Check. Once human rights advocates have decided to lend their support, “Amplifying Other Voices” can be as simple as sharing a link or post on social media, or adding the human rights advocate’s own context explaining their support in ways that build rapport and connection to the issue with their audience. Many human rights advocates also release a “statement” or press release as an “Amplifying Other Voices” strategy.
Adding a Caveat
HRA’s often come across really great solutions from individuals or organizations whose other policies or actions they cannot support. Offering support or endorsement can influence other people’s opinions about the issue, but it can also influence other people’s opinions about human rights advocates themselves, their organizations and their on-going efforts. If the proposal human rights advocates are supporting comes from an individual or organization that may have some baggage, HRA’s can clarify that their support is about this proposal only. In some cases, human rights advocates may even be compelled to explain and highlight their opposition to the individual’s – or organization’s – other actions or policies that they generally cannot support.
Sounding the Alarm
>Human Rights Advocates are often among the first to become aware that a concept, technology, system or policy is in violation of human rights, restricts access to basic needs, or is likely to marginalize or exclude people or create disparities. In fact, human rights advocates may experience the issue themselves, or learn about it in the news or from a close friend or family member. However, HRA’s might not always have the capacity to fully take on every issue they come across. In addition, the issue might fall outside of their personal or organizational agenda. In these cases, human rights advocates can assist by “Sounding the Alarm” or opposing an issue simply by bringing it to awareness. This includes explaining how the policy is a human rights violation, and what the impacts are – or are likely to be – particularly if they include disparate impacts on already vulnerable populations. Similar to “Amplifying Other Voices”, issuing a statement, press release or sharing a social media post are common ways to “Sound the Alarm”.
It’s common for human rights advocates to be at the forefront of social issues. This can mean standing alone in many cases – at least at the beginning. Many human rights advocates also discover that it can be tempting to try to get something passed simply because it’s expedient – not because it is the desired outcome. There may also be people who discourage human rights advocates by saying things like, “it will never pass”. However, human rights are not up for compromise. And greater exposure to education and information about an issue leads to change in policy over time.
“Losing Forward” is a philosophy human rights advocates often use when asking for the right thing – even if it’s unlikely it will be passed today. Engaging in human rights advocacy creates a ripple effect for change, and over time, the desired policy change is likely to occur. However, that can’t happen if human rights advocates begin settling or advocating for the “compromise”.
Choosing the Best Strategy
There are many ways human rights advocates come to learn about a human rights violation, restriction of basic needs, or marginalization. This might include reading the news, seeing a post from an individual on social media, monitoring legislation, in reviewing policies at work, or from a client or customer in their official role or capacity at an organization. Once human rights advocates become aware of a human rights violation, it’s up to them to decide if and how they will intervene. Often, factors include:
- Their personal physical, mental, emotional and financial capacity to intervene at this time;
- Responsibilities in their official role or capacity within an organization or community that allow or require them to intervene; and
- Whether or not the issue is within their personal or organizational agenda, or area of expertise.
Specifically, it’s important for human rights advocates to ask themselves, “Is this an issue, opportunity or problem in which I have the ability and desire to intervene at this time?”
Knowing how you might handle certain situations ahead of time can be beneficial in increasing effectiveness. Check your baseline knowledge and get prepared for your journey as a human rights advocate. You can answer these questions in your head, say them out loud, or type them in. If desired, you can also print your answers, and/or enter your email address to have them sent to you for future reference.