Human Rights Fact-Finding and the Reproduction of Hierarchies
Chapter to appear in HUMAN RIGHTS FACT--‐FINDING IN THE 21ST CENTURY Philip Alston and Sarah Knuckey eds. (Oxford University Press, 2015, Forthcoming)
20 Pages Posted: 17 Oct 2013 Last revised: 2 Feb 2015
Date Written: June 6, 2014
As it is practiced by the world’s biggest international human rights NGOs (INGOs), fact-finding has become an elite activity, carried out, for the most part, by a class of professionalized 'experts.' Over the last several decades, their work has catapulted organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to positions of prominence and influence in myriad global political and policy processes. The work of these individuals and organizations is projected to be (and indeed is sincerely imagined to be) neutral and apolitical, the product of technocrats concerned only with exposing abuses by powers small and large.
While no one can doubt that INGO-led fact-finding has been a force for much good, raising the level of global human rights awareness, the collection and dissemination of human rights facts and knowledge have also been intimately bound of up with politics, power, and the reproduction of hierarchies, making the technocratic view of human rights fact-finding highly problematic. In this chapter, I argue that there is a particular need to think carefully and critically about the role of human rights fact-finding in generating institutional legitimacy and power, in privileging certain questions of social justice over others, and in potentially serving to narrow the terrain through which broader projects of social change might take place.
Understanding fact-finding not as a technocratic exercise, but as part of a set of complex institutional and global power dynamics with distributional consequences may suggest the need to democratize the field, including the collection and dissemination of human rights facts. Though it has fallen out of favor with some of the biggest NGOs, 'capacity building' is one potential model that could be used to try to diversify and pluralize the production of human rights knowledge, making human rights fact-finding more of a true global project rather than the domain of a relatively restricted set of elite institutions. Yet capacity building projects carry their own problematic dimensions, implying, among other things, a one-way transmission of expertise from elite to ‘local’ organizations, and may serve to propagate the very hierarchies and elite strategies for change typified some global NGOs. Thus, simplistic recipes of 'more local, less global' are not sufficient to address some of the more problematic aspects of fact-finding practice.
Ultimately, I argue, there is a need for NGOs, both local and international, to diversify and democratize not only in terms of composition, but in terms of fundamental advocacy paradigms. Fact-finding and the projection of professional, technocratic expertise has served as an impressive platform for high-level lobbying and pressure politics via the mobilization of shame, but is ultimately no substitute for developing a genuine human rights constituency akin to other social justice movements throughout history. While fact-finding may still serve as an engine of growth and legitimacy for some INGOs in the 21st century, it needs to be leveraged to support a richer palette of advocacy tactics if the human rights 'movement' is to move outside of the elite circles to which it has largely heretofore been restricted.
Keywords: Human Rights, Fact-Finding, Capacity-Building, advocacy networks, advocacy, critical theory
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