Executive editor of Sur | International Journal on Human Rights
While we were preparing this issue of Sur and trying to answer questions about the possible futures for the human rights movement in the midst of a global political, economic and health crisis, we came across important discussions that challenged, or at least caused tension in, some of the categories included in our call for papers: power, misinformation and “post-pandemic” are but a few examples. In our dialogue with the authors of this issue, our original questions took on other meanings, and the conclusions we reached were not always the ones we had imagined in the beginning. In any case, Sur continues to embrace the enormous challenge of weaving together diverse threads of interpretation, engaging several voices in dialogue and giving visibility to different views on work as radical and complex as the defence and promotion of human rights in the Global South is.
To answer questions about the future, a critical analysis of the present and an understanding of the past as something that is always open to interpretation are required. The quest to comprehend the intricacies of power, its current reconfiguration and the many ways to fight for it is at the core of the current debate about technologies, misinformation and democracy. This scenario – when added to a context of growing inequality, aggravated by the impacts of the ongoing pandemic –shapes the reality in which people, movements and organizations (the broad spectrum of civil society) live and develop their work and that they aim to change.
As we conclude this issue, we believe we have brought together an important and diverse group of academic experts, international organizations and civil society actors, who all made valuable contributions to the debate about the reconfiguration of global power, the role of technology and disinformation in democratic processes and, finally, on the structural challenges that this situation poses for human rights organizations.
The Covid-19 pandemic ushered in a new scenario for the international human rights field. While on one hand, we watched some world powers use their impressive capacity to manage the health crisis, on the other, the pandemic made the asymmetry of global power and the intricate relationship between public health and geopolitics even more evident. Moreover, in early 2022, the outbreak of the war between Russia and the Ukraine brought to the surface the forces driving the reconfiguration of global power now underway. A disorderly multipolarity is emerging as a broader battlefield in which players of growing importance compete for hegemony.
Analysing and understanding the paths of global power is not, however, a simple task. To respond to this first question about the many faces in this reconfiguration of power, in an interview for this issue, Sonia Corrêa (Brazil) focuses her analysis on the connections, plots and key actors of the ultra-conservative transnational movement, whose strength and influence come precisely from the economic, political and religious power that they aim to preserve. The complex plots of this movement have become entangled in the recent history of Brazil, pointing to the rise of a disturbing epistemological dispute in the fields of human rights. Ronilso Pacheco (Brazil/US), for his part, not only proposes a reflection on the power of the far-right and the challenges of confronting it, but also draws attention to the urgent need for progressive groups to understand and dialogue with another type of power – one that circulates at the grassroots level and that also competes to redefine (albeit asymmetrically) the narrative on human rights and democracy.
In his analysis of the political debate about the grammar of human rights, Raphael Viana David (Brazil/Switzerland) examines in detail the growing role that China has been playing in the United Nations Human Rights Council, where it defends its own approach to the field of human rights. As a global power and inevitable interlocutor in multilateral forums, China has had a strong influence on countries of the Global South.
In an article on Brazilian foreign policy, Déborah Silva do Monte and Matheus de Carvalho Hernandez (Brazil) argue that the major changes in the country’s foreign policy during the Jair Bolsonaro administration were the result of the reshaping of the policy to please the former president’s conservative, Christian voter base, which was predominantly evangelical.
The information war is, beyond a doubt, a defining issue of our times. Aggressive fake news campaigns contributed tremendously to the dissemination of misleading campaigns on the Covid-19 pandemic and to the low vaccination rates in many countries. Furthermore, electoral agendas around the world have been strongly influenced by the questionable use of social media and digital platforms. Information manipulation occurs at different levels and has become an urgent matter on the democratic human rights agenda.
Contrary to the predictions that the Internet would transcend national borders, weaken authoritarian governments and strengthen communities, which were the promises of the expansion of access to the masses, the world wide web reinforces the importance of old, all-too-familiar elements, such as power, law and the logic of business.11. Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), accessed January 26, 2023, https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/books/175/.
The digitalization of politics in recent decades has fuelled the propagation of hate speech, which triggers important debates about the state’s responsibility in the regulation and punishment of this kind of speech. Victor Abramovich (Argentina) examines the legal dilemma between the constitutional principles of equality and non-discrimination and the legal principles that protect freedom of expression in relation to the state’s response to hate speech. In his paper, the author identifies prevention and reparation guidelines to fight speech that reaffirms social stigmas and is a threat to human dignity and democracy. Along the same lines, but more focused on online hate speech, Natalie Alkiviadou (Cyprus/Denmark) discusses the problems resulting from digital platforms’ use of artificial intelligence (IA) to combat hate speech on the Internet. Although automated mechanisms can assist human moderation, they should be used with caution to remove hate speech from the Internet, since they can lead to wrong decisions and even rights violations.
The role of the Internet and digital platforms in democratic processes cause concern about content (who produces and controls it) and access because of rights violations stemming from surveillance, which the digital era has intensified, and also because of disinformation, including the risk involved in the proliferation of false information on the Internet. In an interview with Sur, Otto Saki (Zimbabwe/US) describes a scenario dominated by new technologies, social media platforms and companies that have become very powerful actors on the global scene. Fighting the harmful effects of disinformation necessarily involves human rights screening, which these companies do not do, since they are driven by the interests of capital and the market. Despite this, Saki argues that the international human rights paradigm and structure are still the viable, ethical route for pursuing solutions and dialogue among stakeholders interested in combatting disinformation, including states, the private sector and civil society.
It is important to remember that unlike a simple piece of information based on error or ignorance, one of the characteristics of disinformation is that it is intentional – that is, it is a malicious attempt to mislead people.22. Paul Butcher, "Disinformation and democracy: The home front in the information war". European Policy Centre, January 30, 2019, accessed January 27, 2023, https://www.epc.eu/content/PDF/2019/190130_Disinformationdemocracy_PB.pdf. The dissemination of false information has been used in many electoral contexts with the goal of influencing people to produce a specific outcome. Nina Santos (Brazil) describes the main aspects of the fierce information battle waged during the 2022 elections in Brazil. She discusses the challenges that the fight against disinformation and the search for a healthy digital environment pose for digital platforms, public authorities and civil society in the electoral context and beyond.
The curator of the artwork section of this issue of Sur was Bruno Oliveira (Brazil). In a powerful piece on the dispute and ruins of monuments, Bruno discusses representation, coloniality and the collective reconstruction of meanings and historical memory. This discussion unfolds in a dialogue with two artistic interventions. The first consists of small, fragile ice statues carefully arranged and photographed as they melt in the sun. The second is a public act of collectively washing national flags as a ritual of symbolic cleansing and a call for democracy. The photographic record of these two interventions is part of Sur’s gallery of images entitled “Rebuilding symbols, reinventing monuments”. The “Minimum Monument” by artist Néle Azevedo (Brazil) and the “Washing the Flag” performance by Colectivo Sociedad Civil (Peru), contest, each in their own way and context, the hegemonic meaning of patriotic monuments and symbols, while giving them new meaning through artistic-political exercises of reconstruction and imagination. The cover and the artwork for this issue of Sur were inspired by the photographic record of the Minimum Monument.
In a brief interview with Sur , visual artist and political activist Claudia Coca (Peru), who was a member of Coletivo Sociedade Civil at the time of the “Washing the Flag” performance in the 2000s, shares her view on the convergences between the political context that motivated the public intervention of washing the national flag and the current major political crisis that the country is going through.
Human rights organizations around the world face challenges related to the changes and uncertainties brought by the Covid-19 pandemic and its long-term impacts. These impacts led the organizations to review their internal crisis response strategies and generated pressure to give greater attention to institutional and inter-institutional processes and protocols of well-being and cooperation.
Akwe Amosu (Nigeria/England) presents conclusions from the exchange between global leaders of human rights activism and advocacy participating in the “Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights”. The symposium’s main goal is to discuss elements that strengthen or weaken their organizations so as to fortify and promote solidarity in the field. According to Amosu, three areas require more attention: board governance, executive leadership transitions and internal organizational culture. Muriel Asseraf (France/Brazil) shares the main challenges that Conectas Human Rights faced in its process of self-reflection, learning and institutional capacity-building. This internal exercise led to, for example, the implementation of measures to ensure greater safety and the well-being of team members in a context of extreme anguish and uncertainty exacerbated by the pandemic. Secure funding, working with partners and paying more attention to organizational health are keys for building institutional strengthening and capacity. Along the same lines, in an interview with Sur, Carlos Quesada (Costa Rica/EUA) argues for the need to strengthen the human rights movement by going beyond the compartmentalization of rights. Quesada affirms that recognizing and learning from peers is an important step for addressing collectively and in a coordinated manner one of the main problems that organizations in the region face: sustainability and access to resources. Thus, strategies and opportunities can also be thought out and taken up collectively.
This edition of Sur also includes the profile of two women who dedicate their lives to advocating for better conditions for women and activists of the Global South. Two very unique struggles that also require international solidarity. The story of Miluska Luzquiños (Peru), lawyer and activist fighting for the rights of trans women, reflects the hard work that some organizations had to do to survive the pandemic and the different impacts that especially affected the trans population. Miluska, as she is more commonly known, is the leader of the gender identity bill that has been before the Peruvian Congress since 2016. This draft bill seeks to depathologize transsexualism and ensure that people can change their name on official documents free of charge, among other things. The spotlight then turns to Firuzeh Mahmoudi (US/Iran), founder of United for Iran, an organization that provides technological tools for building a freer and more democratic society and involves Iranian activists all over the world. In her profile, Firuzeh highlights the important role that the organized Iranian women’s movement played in the massive demonstrations held following the death of Mahsa Amnini in September 2022. She advocates for the necessary (and desired) transition from a theocratic government to a secular state.
Finally, we end our dossier with two interviews. Tania Reneaum Panszi (Mexico), the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), describes priorities on her agenda, such as the institutional strengthening of the Commission, the implementation of strategic plans for the advancement of human rights in the region – while reaffirming the states’ responsibility to fulfil their international obligations to guarantee human rights – and her duty to provide an evolving interpretation of such obligations. We then consciously decided to finalize this issue with the interview that Sur had the honour of conducting with artist and educator Walidah Imarisha (US), as part of the exercise of recognizing the power of bringing art and human rights closer. She explains the importance of “science and visionary fiction” – something that may at first seem to have no relation whatsoever to the fight for rights – to political organizing and the work of social justice movements. This raises a simple question: how do we build more just and collective ways of reorganizing the world without using our imagination? How will we work towards a concrete reality that we cannot even conceive in our heads? The world that we want does not exist. It has to be built collectively, and this is what visionary or radical science fiction is for. It is something that can help us dream better about more just futures and turn them into reality. In Imarisha’s wise words, “[…] it is only through imagining the so-called impossible that we can begin to concretely build it”.33. Walidah Imarisha, “Rewriting The Future: Using Science Fiction To Re-Envision Justice.” Bitch Media, February 11, 2015, accessed December 31, 2022, https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/rewriting-the-future-prison-abolition-science-fiction.
We would like to begin with special thanks to Juana Kweitel, who was the Executive Director of Conectas up until December 2022. Not only for her active participation in the preparation of this issue, the definition of the topics and even the title, but mainly for her constant commitment to the content and the names that appear in the issues of Sur. And especially her critical view and her confidence in the journal’s potential and ability to achieve its goal of being an important space for the convergence of voices, experiences and practices in the area of human rights and to influence the international human rights agenda, especially in the Global South. Muchas gracias, Juana!
I would like to thank the editorial team, and Renato Barreto and Gabrielle Martins da Silva in particular, for their dedication and carefulness with the many processes that make this publication possible. I also thank the Strengthening Democratic Space Programme for their collaboration with contacts, proofreading, rich dialogues and support in the elaboration of this issue. We are also grateful to the Conectas communications team for their support throughout the production of the journal.
This issue of Sur would not have been possible without the support of funders who believe in and support our work. We give special thanks to Open Society Foundations, the Sigrid Rausing Trust and the Oak Foundation, as well as individual and anonymous donors who support Conectas’s work to defend human rights.
We also express our gratitude to the following people who collaborated with this issue: Bruno Oliveira, Camila Asano, Carla Cristina Vreche, Carlos José Beltrán Acero, Celina Lagrutta, Fernando Campos Leza, Fernando Sciré, Giovanna Cardoso Pereira, Jane do Carmo, Karen Lang, Letícia Coelho, Lucas Gomes, Luis Misiara, Marina Rongo, Naiade Rufino Silva, Néle Azevedo, Raissa Belintani, Renata Amado Bahrampour, Sara Baptista, Saulo Padilha, Sebastián Porrua Schiess and Thaís Sena.