When activists take to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen as part of the “Arab Spring” protests; when environmentalists challenge mining and logging companies in Guatemala, Honduras and Indonesia; when LGBTI rights activists campaign in Belarus, Ukraine and Uganda; and when freedom of expression campaigners push for change in China, Vietnam and Cuba they are all putting themselves on the front lines for human rights.
They face risks, challenges and threats to their lives, their livelihoods and their families. Many do so simply because of a fundamental belief that all people – no matter race, class, gender, religion or any other category – should enjoy their full social, economic, cultural and political rights enshrined in international law. And all confront entrenched powers and interests that are unwilling to give an inch.
No matter where or what rights they are campaigning for, they are all Human Rights Defenders (HRDs).
The story of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) is one of daily struggles, hard won victories and steadfastness. To support these every heroes – to provide for their protection, well-being and support – Front Line Defenders was initiated in 2001 with the simple mandate to offer resources for the protection of human rights defenders. This has meant offering security grants for individual and organizational protection; providing training in personal and organizational security; training in digital security to confront a rapidly changing and increasingly threatening digital environment; international advocacy; and campaigning.
As Head of Campaigns for Front Line Defenders, I work with Human Rights Defenders to strategize how to promote their Visibility, Recognition and Legitimacy, all within the framework of improving their security to facilitate their work for human rights. The challenges run the spectrum from anonymous death threats via text message or phone call to murder, and in all cases have an impact on the ability of HRDs to do their work. By campaigning for and with them, Front Line Defenders is aiming to reduce the threat by raising awareness of the vital role HRDs play, and to build constituencies of support for their protection.
In designing campaigns, the first step is to consult with the HRD about the targets that we are trying to reach – is it an international audience or a local audience; what do we want the audience to do; and what kind of response are we hoping for from those we are targeting with the campaign. Of course, there is no easy solution – if there was a surefire way to achieve rights, we wouldn’t have these problems in the first place! But by using campaigning tactics to continue to build the credibility of the HRDs and their causes, the cumulative impact over time will be to shape attitudes and change calculations of power-holders, politicians, elites and the public.
Front Line Defenders is uniquely placed to provide such support to HRDs. It was the first international organization to focus specifically on these change-makers on the front lines of human rights struggles and to ask what could be done to support them to continue doing their work. Through consultation with HRDs, Front Line Defenders develops and provides tools and resources for HRDs that can be used to keep them safe, enable their work and, with campaigning, be used to expand their ability to influence their struggles.
One way to conceptualize campaigns is to consider that there are two broad types of target audiences (recognizing that within each, there can be multiple sub-audiences). The two audiences are domestic for any particular country and international, and to reach each one requires different calculations. When considering how to reach domestic audiences, we have to take into account how to reach those audiences, including both what form of media is utilized by those audiences and what media options are available.
In Colombia, Front Line Defenders recently developed a radio public service announcement campaign about human rights defenders at risk, utilizing commercial, community and university radio stations, as they were all available and the radio is a major trusted source of news and information. However, in countries where media freedoms are restricted or outlets are owned/controlled by the state, it would not be possible to conduct such a campaign. When turning to targeting international audiences, we have learned that we need to account for language/translation and thinking about how to reach these audiences in terms of what devices they are using to access online platforms and what platforms are used (i.e. computer, mobile device, social media tools, etc.).
And we have to consider what we hope audiences will do with information in terms of what we are asking for – sign a petition to be delivered to a government official, raise awareness, press for audiences to contact local representatives of foreign governments, aim to get major media to pick up on stories.
Each campaign is different and requires a different calculus as to how to get attention and to engage various audiences. Because Front Line Defenders mission is to provide support towards the protection of human rights defenders, we are keen to work with HRDs about how to impact and shape their environments. That could mean taking action on an international level, but will almost certainly mean engaging with local audiences.
While Front Line Defenders does not campaign on specific causes or issues, it does campaign for the “cause” of making sure that human rights defenders are safe and their rights are respected. As such, bringing attention and support for their work, their efforts and their risks are keys to our campaigning efforts.
(Adam Shapiro is Head of Campaigns at Front Line Defenders, an international human rights organization based in Dublin, Ireland)