-Jessica Buxbaum, City News Editor-
Human rights are not the answer, but rather the question according to Professor Alison Brysk.
“We ask ourselves, we demand of our political systems, ‘who is human, what is right and who is responsible?’” said professor Brysk.
While delivering City University of London Department of International Politics’ annual keynote lecture on March 18, the University of California professor analysed the trajectory of human rights. Throughout her speech, she praised the historic progress of civic engagement and grassroots activism, but also lamented the recent decline in democracy and massive human rights abuses like the refugee crisis.
“There are some who claim rights are too much, they impinge on sovereignty and that’s certainly part of the Trump-Brexit retreat from rights,” said professor Brysk. “There are those on the other side, usually the left, who claim rights are not enough.”
For professor Brysk, the issue is not just about the question of human rights, but also the contention of it. Her presentation focused on the gaps in and expansion and contraction of human rights. Yet, the crux of her argument narrowed in on how human rights are being contested today.
“What are we doing to combat these contractions and gaps? Protest and organising.”
Using examples of favourable court rulings on migration and growing discussions on the intersectionality of social issues like environmental racism, she described a greater sense of organisation and solidarity in the face of fascism.
So how do citizens challenge the Trumps of the world and contest human rights? The visiting lecturer offered five “slogans” for activists to follow:
Use your words
Professor Brysk suggests using the power of communication to relate to others on a human level.
“We need to promote empathy,” she said.
“Communicating visible, relatable images and humanising massive violations.”
“You can’t spell America without Maria.”
As citizens, it is important to remember that our communities are inherently intertwined and to acknowledge and embrace that collectivity.
In explaining how effective coalitions can be, the professor used the anecdote of Japanese-Americans offering legal assistance to Arab-Americans experiencing detentions after 9/11.
“I interviewed the head of the Japanese-American Citizens League, who as a child was in an internment camp, and he said, ‘I woke up on September 12 and thought we’re not going to let them do this again,’” said the visiting lecturer.
Use the right tool for the job
The global governance academic emphasised how vital lawyers are, but also stressed the important role policy plays. She referenced multiple organisations that help channel public participation into policymaking so individuals can access their rights.
“You need to work on access to law, not just getting the law,” she said.
Taking the words from a Los Angeles Women’s March sign, professor Brysk underscored “it’s not a moment, it’s a movement” when campaigning.
“Rights are a process; it’s a process of asking these questions.”
When addressing whether human rights has a real future as the populist narrative takes control amid Trump and Brexit, professor Brysk said the future rests in the power of coalitions and togetherness.
“There’s a future, but it must be a new kind of human rights movement that reaches out beyond international regimes and legal means and attend much more on social economic rights and disadvantages.”
Cover picture: City Press Officer