Research focus: The rise of human rights activism

Shining a light on the rise of human rights activism from the middle of the last century to the current day.

In 2020, the idea that everyone has certain fundamental human rights is something most of us take for granted. But it hasn’t always been like that – and two Departmental academics, an historian and a lawyer, have been investigating how human rights came to be a central part of our political discourse.

Tom Buchanan, Professor of Modern British and European History, has just published Amnesty International and Human Rights Activism in Postwar Britain, 1945–1977. Although the United Nations made its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there was ‘no conception of a human rights movement,’ he says, until several years later.

It was Amnesty, Professor Buchanan argues, that played the key role in popularising the idea of human rights. The organisation, founded in 1961, initially focused on a campaign to free prisoners of conscience (a term coined by Amnesty’s founder, Peter Benenson) – people who had been imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs. Before that, says Professor Buchanan, there had only been localised campaigns: communists protesting about the imprisonment of communists in Spain, for example, or Catholics protesting about the imprisonment of Catholics in Eastern Europe.

‘Amnesty is really important because it turns a key in people’s minds – they think that this is the kind of activism that is open to everyone. A lot of people who maybe haven’t been involved in politics, or people who are on the rebound from other political organisations, or people who are fed up with organised religion, start to get involved in it.’

A switch from political to legal activism

Amnesty’s success influenced other organisations, such as those campaigning for racial justice or freedom of the press, to adopt the language of human rights. While initially the human rights movement was driven by political activists, later it became the focus of legal activism.

In the period Professor Buchanan is interested in, the legal profession was seen as conservative: ‘Many of the people who interested me were lawyers who were fed up with their profession, and felt that to achieve anything you had to go out and mobilise people. You had to have a popular movement of some kind.’ Professor Buchanan’s book ends in 1977, at the point when that move to lawyer-led activism was starting to happen.

In 2020, we can see the impact that change has had: the Human Rights Act was passed in 1998, enshrining into law 14 fundamental rights, among them freedom of expression, freedom from torture and the right to marry and start a family. In 2010, the Equality Act was passed, outlawing discrimination based on nine characteristics, including age, sex and race.

An unfulfilled promise

On the face of it, the campaign for human rights seems like a success story, but it isn’t universally recognised as such. Dr Shreya Atrey, Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law, says that many critics of international human rights law argue ‘that the promise of international human rights law wasn’t realised.’

That’s partly because, as we all know, human rights continue to be breached globally in, for example, the mistreatment of prisoners of war and of political prisoners, and partly because of the limitations of human rights as an idea. They are, argues Dr Atrey, ‘to some extent only about the non-interference of the state, and it stops at that. They are not about addressing the socioeconomic inequalities which really shape how we interact with the world.’

She argues, however, that the idea of human rights has value outside the confines of the legal system, citing campaigning organisations such as the Southall Black Sisters that use the language of human rights to advocate for women who have experienced domestic violence.

Inequalities intersect

Dr Atrey also points to the impact of the Equality Act (2010), which she describes as ‘state-of-the-art’ legislation. Its influence has been wide-ranging: public bodies, including Oxford colleges, are obliged to examine the equality impact of their policies on the communities they’re responsible for. Disappointingly, however, two key clauses – section one, on socioeconomic inequality, and section 14, on how inequalities intersect – have not been put into force.

Section one, she argues, ‘should be at the heart of our understanding of human rights in the UK. Dispossessed people have been battered by poverty, so socioeconomic disadvantage is what we should be addressing and concerned about'. Similarly, the ability to tackle intersecting inequalities (sex and age, for example) could have had a greater impact than treating those inequalities as completely separate categories.

The work of Professor Buchanan and Dr Atrey shows both the remarkable achievements of human rights activists in embedding the idea of human rights in political and legal discourse and the distance we have yet to go as a society in making those rights a reality for everyone. Dr Atrey argues that equality is fundamental to our adoption of human rights ‘If there is no conception of equal human rights, I’m not sure how any other rights can flourish.’

Published 27 July 2020