What Is Human Rights Activism?

Although the idea of human rights has long existed, “universal human rights” were defined in 1948 by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The writers of the UDHR realized after the horrors of World War II that it was necessary to explicitly state that every person was entitled to fundamental rights such as the right to life, the right to be free from torture, and the right to be treated equally. Since then, several binding and non-binding human rights accords have been developed. However, breaches of human rights have continued notwithstanding documents. Around the world, activist groups continue to demand that businesses, governments, and individuals be held accountable for injustices that continue to persist. What does advocacy for human rights look like?

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Activist activity types

Human rights advocacy takes many different shapes. “Activism” refers to any activity that demands responsibility and/or change. Here are a few notable instances:

Writing petitions and letters

There is a long tradition of human rights action using petitions and letter writing. The two-decade-long Write For Rights letter-writing campaign is organized by the advocacy group Amnesty International. It all started in Poland when several friends organized a 24-hour letter-writing marathon to commemorate Human Rights Day. Human rights advocates, convicts, and others get letters, emails, postcards, tweets, and Facebook postings from the public every December. Amnesty International claims that Write for Rights has grown to be the biggest human rights movement globally.

Activism has also benefited from petitions. Cyntoia Brown, then 16 years old, shot and killed a man in 2004. She argued that she was being trafficked for prostitution and that she was afraid for her life, but she still received a life sentence. A Change.org petition requested the governor to give Brown clemency in 2018, following the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling that she must serve at least 51 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole. Brown was freed after Governor Haslam commuted her sentence.

Meals and demonstrations

Marching is just one aspect of protests; nevertheless, most images of them feature groups carrying placards. In addition, concerts, vigils, speeches, lie-ins, sit-ins, and other community gatherings are examples of protests. Usually, they are arranged according to a subject. Protests and marches are among of the most well-known forms of activism due to their scale and the frequently violent reactions they receive from authorities.

In 1989, nonviolent demonstrations started in China. They largely featured students who, after the government lifted certain economic constraints, desired a more democratic political structure. Almost a million demonstrators gathered to sing, wave banners, and yell in Tiananmen Square, the center of Beijing. The armed forces showed up. Thousands of people were slain and another 10,000 were detained at the end of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. While protests don’t always end in bloodshed, taking part in one can still be risky.

Boycotts and strikes

Strikes and boycotts frequently complement one another. Workers will go on strike for a number of reasons, including inadequate pay or hazardous working conditions. When employees and management cannot agree on a solution, strikes are called. In order to put pressure on the corporation to meet the workers’ demands, striking employees frequently encourage customers to boycott the company’s products and services. If a business is shown to engage in immoral activities, such as the exploitation of child labor, or if its political position endangers human rights, other groups frequently demand boycotts.

Not all strikes target a particular company. Ninety percent of Icelandic women went on strike in 1975 to demonstrate their value to the country’s society. Schools, shops, banks, and factories had to close. Men had to watch the kids while women protested in the streets as women took the day off from domestic labor as well. Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the first female president of Europe and the first democratically elected head of state in history five years later.

What does “everyday activism” mean?

While many people work for a living as activists in NGOs and other groups, the bulk of activists do not get compensation for their activities. It is not necessary to possess a certain degree or set of credentials in order to operate in daily life. Speaking up against injustice in public, keeping up with human rights news, and considering how you could be involved in repressive institutions are all crucial. Local activist organizations exist in many places as well, where novice activists may pick up tips from more seasoned activists and get an understanding of how collective movements operate.

Social media’s contribution to human rights advocacy

The function of social media and its effects on human rights are hotly contested topics. It certainly has applications. It can firstly bring together groups of individuals who would not often get together. Additionally, it may link campaigners with billions of potential viewers. Activists’ ability to spread awareness would have been more constrained in the past due to technology. Social media’s accessibility also makes it simpler for more individuals to take part in advocacy for human rights.

However, social media has also been shown to violate human rights in the past. Consider Facebook as an example. In Myanmar, Facebook boasts millions of members, and for many, it serves as their primary news source. This circumstance was taken advantage of by ultra-nationalist Buddhists, who used the occasion to incite hatred towards Muslims. When Myanmar’s army began to crack down on Rohingya Muslims in 2017, this produced a powder keg that eventually erupted. Over 700,000 people were forced to migrate to Bangladesh and many of them killed. According to UN experts, the genocide was made possible by the hate expressed on Facebook. Facebook acknowledged that it hadn’t gone far enough to stop hate speech. Numerous Rohingya refugees in the US and the UK filed a lawsuit against Facebook in 2021. Social media is undoubtedly a helpful instrument for human rights action, but it also poses a threat to those rights, which has to be acknowledged.


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