Speaking Rights to Power – How It’s Done and How to Do it Better

June 8, 2015

During a public lecture at the School of Public Policy at CEU on June 4, Mellichamp Professor of Global Governance at the University of California, Santa Barbara Alison Brysk shared some of what she has learned from her more than 25 years of research on the politics of human rights. Brysk began her presentation by quoting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights, she said, are rooted in the universal claim that we are all “free and equal in rights and dignity.” Brysk explained that the power of human rights rhetoric comes from empathy, socialization, and interdependence.  

Brysk noted that some human rights campaigns were more successful than others, and went on to explain why that is. She pointed to Human Rights Watch as a particularly good example of an organization that had successfully used communication power to expose hidden abuses, demand accountability, expose the gap between rhetoric and reality, and to collect information. Building on Keck and Sikkink's work on the power of information and symbolic politics in transnational advocacy networks, Brysk analyzes the dynamics of the politics of persuasion. She traces the impact of campaigns to the qualities of the arc of communication: speakers, message, performance and political theater, use of media, and targeting of audience.

In her current work, Brysk is exploring which communication element – voice, message, performance, media, or audience – is most effective. “I’m looking for impact,” she said. As Brysk explained, there are many types of effective voices: there is, for example, the hero (Nelson Mandela in South Africa or Maria da Penha in Brazil); the martyr (Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina); the expert (Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen); the witness (Doctors Without Borders); personification (Dalai Lama); and the cause célèbre (Aung San Suu Kyi).

How one “frames” an issue is also critical. As Brysk noted, because Darfur was framed as genocide, it attracted support and attention that it would not have received otherwise. She contrasted the situation in Darfur with that in the Congo, which had received much less attention in part because it was framed not as genocide, but as a chaotic situation. Another important factor: “Political claims must be voiced in public space,” she said. Brysk pointed to Anna Hazare’s campaign in India as an example of someone who had waged a particularly successful public campaign.

Brysk commented that media was important, but noted that it did not stand alone.  “There must be a powerful message,” she said. She also discussed some of the limitations of social media noting that it “gives us interactivity, which is important in some parts of the world,” but that it had no magic multiplier power. “There is no global public opinion until we build it,” she concluded.

Watch Brysk's lecture below.

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