(Commentary) – Like every other activity, the impact of human rights work is bound in space and time. As in every other social activity, human rights is bound to historical circumstances. From these factors, there is no escape. To ignore these factors in impact assessment is to lose the very core of meaning in such an assessment.
Mentioning the less developed countries is an essential element of space and time and historical context. The way to explain this is by way of making a contrast. A less developed country when compared to a developed country has the following contrastz from the point of view of elements that matter in human rights matters:
The following article appeared on the Asian Human Rights Commission website. It
analyses the difficulties of moving human rights issues forward when working with
a diverse group such as Asean-member countries.
A developed country is today described by perhaps the greatest political philosopher of our time, John Rawls, as a place of moderate scarcity. A less developed country is still in the stage of extreme scarcity. Thus the problem of poverty and limitation of resources are essential aspects of the condition known as being less developed.
From the point of view of rule of law, a developed country has an adequately developed rule of law system, where the basic elements such as the legislation, the constitutional framework and the institutional set up – particularly in relation to the police, the prosecution system, judicial system and the prison system – have developed to an adequately acceptable standard. By contrast, a less developed country has serious defects in legislation, in their constitutional framework, and also in terms of the institutional frameworks of the institutions mentioned above.
From the point of view of democracy, a developed country has acquired an adequate level of freedom. By contrast, a less developed country still remains within the framework of repression. The contrast between freedom and repression is a very essential element in discussions about developed countries and less developed countries.
All the factors mentioned above, including that of resource availability, the rule of law system and the contrast between freedom as against repression, are important components to take into consideration when dealing with the impact of human rights work in a less developed countries.
For example, what may appear to be a small act or event in a developed country may have very different significance in a situation of repression.
As Vaclav Havel mentioned, in the context of totalitarian regimes an act of an activist distributing a small number of copies of a small pamphlet may be of great significance. Such an act may also take great courage, as the risks are very high. In a country where there is freedom of expression and publication such an act may be seen as a mere triviality.
In countries where torture is endemic and widely practiced, developing a protest movement against that is not the same as condemnation of torture in a developed country where the norms against torture are well established and freedom of expression protect the person who makes the protest. Therefore, assessing human rights work relating to torture in a developed country and a less developed country are two very different things.
The meaning of such work to people who live within a context where torture is so commonly used is of historic significance. Even such small activities can provide the victims as well as the general population that lives under fear an opening that they may not have seen before. It may show some light at the end of the tunnel. For those who have been suppressing their anger against such use of torture and abuse of power, they may find in such efforts to fight against torture that they have an opportunity to express their own frustrations and to work out of the cocoon.
Thus a small act of protest may be the beginning of a movement and a movement once begun may find expressions a hundred fold or thousand fold depending on the circumstances. Also the beginners of such movements require considerable courage and a willingness to face risks. Someone from a developed country may not be able to see the manifold significance of such activities. However to miss this element is to lose capacity to measure the impact within a given historical context.
A further important principal in assessment of impact is that there are layers and layers of impact. An act which may seem small may have an echo that gives rise to several more small actions and these small actions little by little will expand and create new layers of impact and these very layers of impact after some time will extend to other layers and keep on going like this for a long period of time. Such ripple effects are particularly important in dealing with the human rights works in less developed, meaning more repressive, societies.
What is implied by this concept of layers and layers of impact is that to look for ultimate or final impact is to miss the whole dynamic that takes place in the struggle against repression. What may be called the ultimate impact may be some decades and decades away. If someone waited for that ultimate outcome such waiting will delay the outcome. Essential work against repression is the work of those impatient people, people who want to do whatever that is within their power, howsoever small that may be under the given circumstances.
There are people who do not want to sit and wait. There is a social dynamism in such impatience. All great social movements are the product of those who are willing to do the small things, whatever little things that are possible under difficult circumstances.
A sensitive person looking into impact of human rights work must have penetrating insight into to the unhappy lives of people who live under bad and repressive circumstances. Under such unhappy circumstances, and the dark psychological impact due to the repetition of bad events, there are those who make special efforts even without expecting great miracles to happen by way of big changes. Hope and hopelessness exist within the same person often at the same time. It is the impulse of hope pushing against the impulses of hopelessness that gives the impulse for all kinds of initiatives.
A sensitive inquiry will look for the human genius that works under hopeless circumstances and desperate situations which against all odds try to do whatever they can to expand the area of freedom inch by inch. However when something jumps from inch and inch to a foot, or to a yard, or to a mile, this is not something that the active agent could predict as he moves in the midst of hopelessness and darkness.
Human rights works in the midst of repression is some sort of miracle making. However those small people who push inch by inch do not often know that they are miracle workers. They almost daily blame themselves for not being able to do more, they weep seeing the suffering of others, they are preoccupied with their own helplessness and their limitations. It is not for them to see the role they play for their society and for the future. Such is the human condition and it is under those circumstances that small people work trying to contribute their little bit often thinking that what they do may not matter at all.
To measure the layers and layers of the impact of human rights works requires a deep appreciation and understanding of what repression really means and what efforts people do make in those circumstances to move their people for better.
Documentation: within a repressive situation many violations of human rights happen all the time but they are soon forgotten. That is a part of the way people are silent. When someone decides to record a violation, it is a significant event in that context. The act of documentation involves victim/victims and others who come to support him or her.
It takes a considerable courage on the part of a victim to decide to participate in speaking out what he or she suffered and to allow it to be documented. Such a victim has to struggle against his or her own fears as well as reprimand from those around him or her who may remind him or her that it is better to be silent, or that at least it is wiser to be silent. Thus an agreement to participate in documenting involves many personal decisions on the part of the victim. The worst part of this is to live through the trauma of recalling.
When the victims, after consideration of the risk, takes a decision to allow his or her story to be recorded, that is a bold step. It will have its impact on his or her own future behavior. Once a victim speaks out for the first time for a public purpose, and documentation is a public purpose, new kind of habituation begins. After making revelations for the first time doing so again for the second time may be less difficult and then he or she may even get to the habit of beginning to tell her story. It is also beginning a process of making a new friends and also new enemies. Many who hear his or her story may not have earlier thought that this same person has undergone such an ordeal. A new process of identification and linking begins.
On the other hand, when the victim speaks out he or she has begun the process of confronting his or her tormentors, and they too may and often do retaliate. Thus new kinds of contacts begin between the victims and the tormentors. At the time of suffering the violations the victim may have had to face it alone and passively. Now in the process of confrontation it is done with the solidarity of others and the person is now active and no longer passive. Thus there is an impact in the behavioral process of the victim as well as of the associates. A beginning of a contesting process in repressive societies is a very significant movement. When a single individual begins his or her contest it also has an impact on the general situation of repression itself. Not only the victims but a few others and gradually more and more persons begin to participate in such a context.
This is the most important element in fighting for human rights. Changing passivity into active protest is indeed a very fundamental kind of an impact. And now the process of transcribing the story that is transforming the oral story into a written story begins. In the cultural scene the transformation of the oral into writing is an impact. While the oral story can be shared only within a hearing distance, the transcribed story can now be shared with more persons. It may be shared with one more person, ten more persons, hundreds more persons or even a million or more persons. A process of sharing a story of a violation of rights is itself impact. Now the story is available outside the victim. The story can travel without the victim having to travel.
The story as it travels comes to the notice of many others and this makes it possible for more persons to respond. Improving the capacity of responses of more persons is also impact. When more people respond there may develop some reactions. Some persons may take up this issue in many forums. Now some persons may begin to correlate other stories to this new story of the victim and thereby begin a process of analyzing. When human rights problems are being analyzed, that too is impact. Now with a story, reactions of some or many, and analysis of some or many, the matters relating to the violations begin to be discussed.
Discussions mean social discourse. Thus violations that the victims complain of have now given rise to a social discourse. The generation of a social discourse on human rights violations is also an impact. As a result of this discourse the violation may be taken up at a legal forum. The matters relating to the violation may be dealt with within that legal forum. Thus a legal discourse on the violation of rights has now begun.
A beginning of a legal discourse on human rights violations is also an impact. As a result of a legal discourse, perpetrators will be brought before legal forums and they may be subjected to a process of accountability. A process of accountability has now begun. As a result of the process of accountability perpetrators may or may not be punished and the victim may or may not be compensated.
That will depend on the strength of the legal machinery. If the legal machinery proves incapable of dealing with the issues of accountability, then the inadequacies and the problems of the legal process will be subjected to scrutiny and analysis and criticism. In repressive systems beginning a process of criticism of the legal mechanism is an impact of a very significant nature.
As a result of many such discussions on one story leading to another, and when the critique develops extensively, public opinion begins to form on the defects of the system and the needs of the system. Such a discourse on reforms is again a very significant level of an impact. As this discourse widens media channels may begin to show a greater interest and thus through the media little by little gradually a discourse on reform begins to get an ever wider hearing.
This is the level at which social debate at various forums is generated on human rights violations. Thus wider publicity generated for a social debate on human rights violations is also an impact of a very significant nature. Then, depending on the political situations, possibilities arise for not only legal reforms but related political and social reforms. The time the story was documented to the time such a discourse for reforms happens will be determined by circumstances beyond the control of the victim or the activist who initially took the initiative to begin to talk. Often such situations will depend on many factors. However once a process has begun it is kept up by an ever-increasing number of documentations of the stories, and a process of repetition and replications takes place. Such replications are an essential aspect of improvement of reflection, knowledge, reactions and generating of impulses for reforms. All such matters are matters of impact.
Thus the victims and the activists who are engaged in the process of documentation, publishing, pursuing legal redress, generating analysis, generating the discourse of the reforms, are all the time engaged in influencing impact at many layers. As said before, impact takes place at many layers over a long period of time depending on favorable and unfavorable situations, and generates different kinds of discourse.
At each level there is impact. And each action’s reaction and response leads to further response and publicity, further discourse and collective actions, which are all a series of single change. And it is to build this change that the human rights activists work and their impact must be measured through consultation relating to all these dimensions.
Basil Fernando has been the executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission and the Asian Legal Resource Centre since 1994. He has written numerous works on human rights and legal reform issues.
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