Sat 11 May 2013
My friend and colleague Jo Becker joined Human Rights Watch in 1997, the year before I came on board. We’ve been there ever since–with the occasional break–leading advocacy for the organization’s respective “thematic” divisions on children’s rights and arms.
Under Jo’s leadership, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs founded the International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (now Child Soldiers International) in May 1998. Exactly two years later, the coalition’s efforts paid off when governments adopted a protocol to prohibit the use of child combatants in the UN General Assembly on 8 May 2000. The story of this remarkable achievement is told in Chapter One of her new book Campaigning for Justice: Human Rights Advocacy in Practice.
The child soldiers campaign followed hot on the heels of successful civil society-driven initiatives to ban landmines in 1997 and to establish the International Criminal Court in 1998. Jo notes wryly how fear of a “third strike” by the different style of diplomacy behind these treaties prompted the Clinton Administration to change the US position during the negotiations to support a ban on the use of child soldiers.
In Campaigning for Justice, Jo describes how collaboration by NGOs with like-minded states, UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross combined with solid national campaigning helped pave the way for the protocol. As she does in other chapters, Jo tells the personal account of those most directly affected, in this case a child soldier. The chapter includes some nice comments from activists involved in the campaign, such as Rachel Brett (“we shifted the debate”) and the child soldiers coalition’s first coordinator Stuart Maslen, a long-time advocate for the landmine ban.
It is noteworthy that Jo does not end the chapter with adoption of the protocol, but describes the significant follow-up that NGOs and others have engaged in since 2000 to ensure the protocol’s full universalisation and implementation by all.
The standard-setting achievement in 2011 of the Domestic Workers Convention is told in Chapter Two. Human Rights Watch and Jo also played a crucial role in securing this new international law guaranteeing domestic workers the same protections available to other workers, including specific protections for domestic workers under the age of 18.
The nine other chapters in Campaigning for Justice provide a range of compelling studies of successful campaigning for human rights. Jo looks at work to influence the human rights bodies, particularly the perennially-challenged Human Rights Council. Despite its polarizing membership of abusive nations, some good things have emerged due to the diligent efforts of NGOs and progressive governments, such as the UN special rapporteurs assigned to monitor and report on human rights violations.
The work of human rights NGOs and particularly my Human Rights Watch colleagues shines throughout this book. The section of chapters on “accountability” records the years-long effort to bring Liberia’s Charles Taylor to justice, the Abu Salim prison massacre in Libya that ultimately led to the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, and the ongoing refusal of the Sri Lankan government to acknowledge and address its war crimes. The section on new media and new alliances presents some the final case studies on campaigning by Tibetan rights activists around the Beijing Olympics, organizing LGBTI rights in Jamaica and Nepal, and efforts to stop the abysmal US practice of sentencing of juvenile offenders to life without parole.
The Children’s Rights Division continues to grow and expand, as does the scope of Jo’s work. When so much needs to be done to protect children’s rights it’s reassuring to know this advocacy is in her capable hands. That she has managed to find time to write this book is a feat in itself.
Over the years we–and especially my boss Steve Goose–have swapped strategies and compared notes with Jo on the arms division’s work in support of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munition Coalition, and related humanitarian disarmament initiatives. It is nice to see those discussions reflected in her findings.
Advocacy is about getting results and ultimately working yourself out of a job. The lessons that Jo identifies from the case studies apply across any and all campaigns working to ensure the protection of human rights: use multiple points of leverage, involve the victims, be opportunistic and use strategic timing, work via broad-based alliances, and provide credible research and documentation.
Her finding that “some of the best campaigns are essentially opportunistic in nature” rings in my ears as we embark together with roboticists and scientists on a campaign to stop killer robots–weapons that don’t yet’s exist–via a preemptive ban treaty.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been disappointed to hear advocacy described as “shouting” or “speaking very loudly” because, as Campaigning for Justice demonstrates, it’s about so much more. Anyone wanting to better understand our work should read this book.