Interview with Louis Bickford

Louis Bickford

Convergence Towards the Global Middle: "Who Sets the Global Human Rights Agenda and How"



In the multi-polar world where the international human rights movement operates today, Louis Bickford is able to observe and influence different facets of the human rights landscape from an advantaged viewpoint. Bickford manages the Ford Foundation’s Global Human Rights program, assisting both well-established and emerging groups to bolster the global human rights movement. Prior to joining the Ford Foundation in 2012, he was on the executive leadership team of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and, before that, was a program director at the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

Bickford’s experience with activism dates back to his time as student activist in the 1980s and then his work in Chile in the early 1990s on issues related to memory and accountability in the Southern Cone. Later in the ICTJ, Bickford’s primary job was to facilitate partnerships with national NGOs in countries as diverse as Bosnia, Burma (Thai border), Ghana, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa, and to collaborate with these partners on peer exchanges and joint field-building activities. These experiences gave him a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities that international NGOs can bring to the international human rights field.

Making use of this valuable experience, in an interview given to Conectas in September 2014, Bickford offers a critical assessment of the current stage of the international human rights movement. While recognising that international NGOs are seeking to be closer to the ground and national NGOs to participate directly in the international arena, which Bickford calls “convergence towards the global middle”, he conclusively states “international human rights movement has too seldom been able to frame its work in ways that resonate with poor and marginalised communities.”

In this sense, in order to keep growing, for Bickford, the “movement needs to be relevant to more people more often in order to thrive”. In his answers, he offers examples of organisations that have been trying to do just that and the challenges they face.

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Conectas Human Rights • You have been working in various ways with civil society organisations in every world region for over 20 years now. In your opinion, what has changed from the early human rights activism, focused on documenting civil and political rights violations and centred in international NGOs, to the current stage of human rights activism?

Louis N. Bickford • The human rights system has become increasingly complex in recent decades. Part of this complexity is an expansion of the international human rights movement to encompass a much broader array of rights and activities than in the 1970s and 1980s. This happens along two axes. First, the content of rights has expanded. Since the Vienna Conference in 1993, there has a been a significant broadening of the frame from a narrower set of rights claims during the Cold War (mostly civil and political rights) to claims that run the gamut of the Universal Declaration. This is evidenced by the long list of Special Procedures of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which demonstrates the breadth of the rights claims that are now considered legitimate by the international community.

The second way that the international human rights movement has expanded is in relation to its network architecture. This refers to how the movement is structured in terms of size, location of key actors, and relationships among actors. Perhaps the single most important change here is simply the vast increase in the number of organisations that self-identify as “human rights organisations” over recent decades. Equally important is where these organisations are headquartered. During the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the international human rights NGOs became a vitally important breed of organisation, given that national/domestic NGOs in countries such as Chile, South Africa, and Russia were under extreme threats to their daily existence, and given that these national organisations – in cases where they actually existed at all – tended to be small and underfunded. The international players, from the relative safety of New York or London, were able to attract the world’s top law school graduates and others to the cause, not to mention identify and raise funds. They were able to exert real influence in Washington or at the United Nations. Working through international institutions based largely in the US and Europe, they were also able to focus on the development of norms, creating a jurisprudential revolution in human rights law that is hardly matched in any other field, and building a global system of laws, norms, and institutions that constitutes, today, a powerful force for human rights. These INGOs remain important. But there have also been real changes in the other side of the equation: the national/domestic NGOs which have become so strong, professional, and ubiquitous. These national NGOs – groups like DeJusticia in Colombia or the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa – are increasingly involved at the international and global levels, which is creating some significant shifts in the ecosystem of the human rights movement.

Conectas • While recognising the gains of international human rights organisations, as you have just mentioned, is the division of labour between national and international NGOs still an accurate depiction of how the international movement is structured today? Northern NGOs have moved their headquarters to the Global South and Southern organisations have increasingly worked at the international level. Recently, you have called this phenomenon ‘convergence towards the global middle’. What do you mean by that?

L.N.B. • The distinction between international and national organisations is not always useful (there are many organisations that are not so easily categorised) but it can be helpful in differentiating various niches and components of the international human rights movement. It is especially relevant in terms of different theories about how the human rights movement “works”. What is the movement trying to achieve and what is the best way to achieve these goals? At the heart of these questions are the ways in which the human rights movement defines its global priorities and, in turn, how it generates support from various constituents. The distinction between national/domestic organisations, which operate in their own societies, and international organisations, which focus mostly on the international system or on countries other than the ones in which they are based – and tend to be based in capital cities in the Global North, including New York, London, Geneva, and Paris – makes a difference. Because the international organisations have deeper connections with funding communities, decision-makers, elite universities, and a cosmopolitan network of opinion leaders in the North, and because they are genuinely working internationally, and therefore have higher budgetary demands, they tend to have significant power and authority in defining the agenda.

However, there is a major countervailing trend, as you mentioned, which I have called convergence towards the global middle. Two important and complementary tendencies are at play with each other. The first tendency is for international human rights NGOs to move to the Global South in an effort to be “closer to the ground” (in Amnesty International’s words). For the international NGOs, it is more important than ever to demonstrate real and direct linkages with the Global South. In this sense, Amnesty is moving its international secretariat to be relocated in “hubs” in various Southern countries.

The second tendency is for national NGOs to move upward and engage more directly with the international human rights system, often beyond their own regions and/or often engaging with human rights issues in countries other than their own. This trend does not – and should not – characterise all national NGOs or all international ones, but it does capture a significant subset of both. Consistent with the idea of “rooted cosmopolitanism” in social movement theory, the leaders of these national groups see no reason why they should not be directly involved in determining the future of the international human rights movement.

These two trends are complemented by the existence – both historical and new – of networks of deeply grounded national organisations which create horizontal alliances in order to strengthen their influence and advocacy at the international level.

This convergence towards the global middle is really about where power is located within the human rights movement. For instance, in relation to who sets the global agenda and how. Should there be another major global institution like the International Criminal Court? How should international principles such as the Responsibility to Protect be developed? Might certain rights, like right to education or housing, be worthy of more global attention? These questions are put under a different light once the current trends of convergence towards the global middle are taken into consideration.

This convergence is more of an evolutionary trend than a brand new development. Groups like FIDH and the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-Asia) have always been intimately linked to national (and South-based) NGOs. Organisations like the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) and Witness are premised on an operating model requiring deep partnerships with South-based NGOs. In the women’s rights field, groups like the Association for Women in Development (Awid) have been both international and based in the Global South since being founded. The international network for social and economic rights (ESCR-Net) and the new International Network of Civil Liberties Organisations (Inclo) are examples of international networks of deeply grounded national organisations. And many organisations – including BHRRC and Awid – are actively translating their materials into multiple languages, recognising the importance of communication with widely diverse constituencies.


Conectas • Also in relation to national NGOs, several factors have challenged the representativeness of national NGOs in their own countries. As seen in recent mass demonstrations in Brazil, Ukraine, US and Middle East, just to cite a few, street protests and not NGOs have taken the primary role as promoters of social change. Do you think that the internationalisation of local NGOs brings up the danger of disconnecting them from their own local context?

L.N.B. • Social movements have framing power, and these movements are able to compete with human rights discourse and, potentially, are able to “win on the terrain of imagination” as Samuel Moyne wrote once. This challenge, then, concerns how potent human rights is and will be in the 21st century as a discursive frame for new and future social movements as they arise nationally, regionally, and globally.

Telling a story about Egypt, a well-known figure in the human rights world explained to an audience that during the 1980s, being a human rights activist in Egypt was dangerous and frustrating. It was difficult to achieve change. But human rights organisations nonetheless played key roles in articulating a vision for a better society. They galvanised people and provided a framework for societal transformation. One part of the strategy of these actors was to use the international system and to work in Geneva, New York, Brussels, London, and Washington to achieve their goals. This was both less dangerous and in many ways less frustrating than working in Egypt. They contributed to creating international pressure on Egypt and the more general formation of international norms. They generated strong solidarity movements and cultivated allies in other countries and regions, including in their own diaspora. They began to spend more and more time working in the international sphere. Back at home, they slowly came to be seen as ‘those people who go to conferences and cocktails in London and New York’. When the Arab Spring happened, the human rights framework and many of the activists associated with it were not a central inspiration. They had less standing in Egypt on questions of societal transformation than other, newer actors who were able to harness the imagination of the protesters.

The main point of this story has to do with building dynamic national organisations that are deeply rooted in domestic experience and speak to the relevant local constituencies. If one of the main challenges facing the movement is its ability to inspire and frame broader social change goals, then probably national level organisations, if they are able to do so (considering safety concerns, etc.), should strengthen the movement based on national experience of combatting abuse and implementing rights. Indeed, in this sense, organisations like CELS in Argentina, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in South Africa, or the Kenyan Human Rights Commission in Kenya ought be the driving force of innovation and change on the national level, first and foremost, where they need to earn their reputation and legitimacy.

Conectas • One of the reasons Southern NGOs have turned more and more to the international arena is the rise of the emerging powers’ influence in their own regions, transnationally and globally. The rise of Brics is an example of that. In that context, some have called upon those Southern countries to act as leaders in this newly multi-polar world, while mindful of their own (often problematic) human rights record. In your opinion, what is the role of NGOs from the South in this scenario?

L.N.B. • The convergence towards the global middle could potentially help the international human rights movement to confront the challenge of adapting to the ostensible emergence of multi-polarity that includes the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Mints (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey) – or other formulations – and that represents important potential shifts in the human rights system. Although it seems clear that US influence is declining globally, it is not as clear how these emerging powers will engage with global human rights policy debates. That said, there might be opportunities in terms of the foreign policies of emerging powers. Theodore Piccone has made similar arguments, suggesting that countries such as Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia can potentially play strongly constructive roles as international actors, including through leadership on various issues related to human rights.

The key element of this challenge is how the international human rights movement pressures the foreign policy apparatus of emerging states to engage with other states or the international system. In this sense, Conectas is one of the NGOs that is setting an example of this new strategy, which seeks to put pressure on the Brazilian government’s foreign policy. Similarly, international NGOs such as Amnesty International, Crisis Action, FIDH, and Human Rights Watch are increasingly focusing on the foreign policies of emerging powers. The concrete outcomes of such strategies are yet to be seen but are already promising due to the multi-polar world we are likely heading to.

Conectas • A last question. Traditional human rights NGOs have had the challenge of better communicating their work. Often, the legalistic nature of human rights language, as well as the widening of the agenda of human rights movement (as you mentioned before) tend to make such communication even harder. In your opinion, how could the work of NGOs better serve the communities where they are situated?

L.N.B. • This issue brings us back to the question of human rights as a discursive frame: is the human rights framework a powerful one? If so, for which constituencies? How can the movement remain dynamic and resonant into the 21st century, mobilising young people and others? In this sense, I would argue that the international human rights movement has too seldom been able to frame its work in ways that resonate with poor and marginalised communities. From the favelas of Brazil to the slums of Nairobi and New Delhi, millions of people’s lives continue to be desperate. Indeed, the human rights movement has not always provided the necessary tools for these communities to achieve their rights, including very basic rights of life, personal security, and livelihood. It would be an exaggeration to say that the movement has failed these communities, but the truth is that it has not gone far enough in identifying – and fighting for – their needs. Indeed, the most urgent challenge that the movement needs to address is the reality that the most poor and marginalised populations in the world are consistently denied their basic political, civil, social, and economic rights.

This may or may not refer to the realisation of economic and social rights, in a narrow, legal sense. The important point is that the international human rights movement needs to be relevant to more people more often in order to thrive. This may have as much to do with methods as with which categories of rights get prioritised. In other words, people need to understand how movements can help them make their lives better. The human rights movement is not always so good at explaining that. Having achieved a series of successes, the movement must now demonstrate how and why it is relevant to facing the challenges of extreme poverty and marginalisation, and show how it can contribute to giving voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and some resolution to the most pressing needs of people around the world.

For me, the answer to this lies in movement-building: how to make the human rights movement more powerful as a movement. Movements engage with norms as political opportunity structures. This is the best reason for the movement to continue to put energy into norm development, especially in certain areas, such as LGBT rights and disabilities rights, to name a few. Similarly, the movement can engage constructively with political opportunity structures such as the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Procedures, and the regional systems. In this sense, the energy of the Human Rights Council in Geneva is an indication of the importance of standard-setting and norm development among the community of nations. The Council can sometimes feel exciting, and victories of norms development and adoption are often celebrated with enthusiasm.

But standards and norms are not enough. We know from empirical research such as the work of Beth Simmons and Emilie Hafner-Burton that norms can only take us so far. Of course at some point rights must be realised in a very real way on the ground. More than ever, the movement needs to focus on what ‘works’ in terms of realisation, such as strategic litigation using national courts, new policy instruments, changes in budgetary allocations, etc. And in relation to the international system, the movement needs to leverage the power of the international system to real problem-solving at home.

Louis Bickford

Louis Bickford manages the Ford Foundation’s Global Human Rights program, assisting both well-established and emerging groups to bolster the global human rights movement. Prior to joining the Ford Foundation in 2012, he was on the executive leadership team of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Previously, he was program director at the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), consultant for the Oak Foundation, the Bertha Foudnation, the United Nations Development Program and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, among others. Louis has taught regular graduate seminars on global human rights at Columbia University, New York University and the New School for Social Research.

Original in English.

Interview conducted in September 2014 by Thiago Amparo (Conectas Human Rights).