Posted by: samdipnall | May 25, 2016

Human rights advocacy: enhanced vision and newfound optics

Human rights advocacy: enhanced vision and newfound optics

By Sam Dipnall

One of the first French terms I learnt in my travels abroad is avocat. Its one of the translations available for “a lawyer.” Despite my command of French growing slowly, like my front lawn in the heat of summer, a newfound love for this language has also brought with it some new thoughts as well. I’ve recently wondered whether, casting those entry, professional and regulatory differences aside, is there any practical distinction between the role of a lawyer and that of an advocate when it comes to taking up the challenge of human rights work? After some reflection, I think there is, but there is also nothing stopping someone furthering their desire to be both.

This piece then is about identifying some of the hallmarks of effective human rights advocacy I’ve learnt, seen and applied in my time so far at International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) here in Geneva, Switzerland.

Human rights lawyer. Human rights advocate. Is there space to be both?

For me, the position of a lawyer connotes a distinguished set of technical competencies finely applied to utilise the law to give practical and useful legal advice for clients. As students of the law, we spend many hours at university taking in, and learning the principles underpinning this knowledge. Even then, honing the practise of the law to reach a level of great effectiveness remains an ongoing and long-term commitment. Surely, this is a great set of skills to have – but developing the craft of effectively advocating for reform or change on issues impacting human rights is also similarly worthy of close attention as well.

I’m increasingly of the view that through human rights advocacy there is a wider band of opportunity to advance the case and cause of those who cannot do it alone. Yes, lawyers can, for example, be a legal advocate for a client in a negotiation, a tribunal or a court, but thinking beyond the bounds of the traditional lawyer/client relationship, if matched with an inner desire to protect and promote the underpinning principles such as those contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a lawyer can also potentially transcend from helping their individual clients, into also finding ways to help groups of people who collectively encounter difficulties fulfilling their own potential for want of the thoughtless or unnecessary exercise of authority in ways other than class action litigation. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights touches on the nature of this dual idea in discussing the work of human rights defenders, where it says that:

Many professional activities do not involve human rights work all of the time but can have occasional links with human rights. For example, lawyers working on commercial law issues may not often address human rights concerns and cannot automatically be described as human rights defenders. They can nevertheless act as defenders on some occasions by working on cases through which they contribute to the promotion or protection of human rights.

Engaging in human rights advocacy then, opens up the spectrum to drive wider long-term legal, social, economic and cultural reform and change now, and for years to come, because in doing so, the chance to apply human rights norms and approaches can more likely be mainstreamed into everyday work and community life.

In truth, it’s likely that the two roles, both the lawyer, and the advocate, actually benefit and reinforce each other, particularly in the human rights field. We see this through intelligent mixed leveraging of these skill sets in some Australian specialist community legal centres, as well as the increasing development of sophisticated pro bono practices in Australian and international law firms who often have great lawyers and significant resources available. Allied to a genuine collective desire to advance human rights and access to justice, when lawyers and advocates come together the gains can be multiplied and significant. I’m a great believer in pro bono; it ignited my desire to shape my career towards human rights advocacy.

However, what about the practice of effective human rights advocacy? The remainder of this piece will try to offer some useful thought on this.


Providing an enhanced vision through human rights advocacy

The soon approaching 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in June will mark its 10th anniversary, and also provide a timely moment for pause and consideration of what can be done to improve its significant capacity to set the standard of human rights worldwide. Because it is a primary international forum to pursue the top-down implementation of international human rights law to advance and benefit future generations to come, it means that developing the Council into a more effective, protective and accessible venue is critical if the Council is to remain a viable and approachable human rights platform for advocates, human rights defenders and representative NGOs to engage with it. This is what a group of twenty NGOs, including ISHR, have called for in the recently published joint civil society paper Strengthening the Human Rights Council at 10 which I’ve been assisting with last month.

I want to profile this paper because it presents an excellent series of ideas for reform, both short and medium term, that are both achievable and could have noticeable impact and benefit. Many of the reforms proposed in this paper could enhance the efficiency and output of this key UN human rights pillar. Although there is no perfect template for framing reform submissions or proposals, I found the method adopted in this paper a source of inspiration for taking a practical and usable approach to advancing structural and institutional reforms in human rights advocacy work.

Opportunities to knock, but on which human rights advocacy door?

At first sight, the UN human rights system might not appear to be all that accessible to local, rural or remote humanitarian fieldwork advocates or human rights defenders to advance their ideas for systemic changes that could benefit vulnerable groups they represent. Approaching the UN system for the first time could well be daunting for someone without access to training, experience, guidance or support. After all, we all can relate to our own desire to knock on the right advocacy door the first time to pursue the best outcome.

In spite of this need however, there may well be a scarcity of specific training, similar to a law degree course, in the vital area of international human rights advocacy work. ISHR’s Human Rights Defenders Advocacy Programme is one great example which I’m now helping prepare for 20 human rights defenders to commence next month, however it increasingly seems to me that many key aspects of human rights advocacy skills are developed primarily through time and experience. Some of these experiences could include consistent engagement and volunteering with an NGO or a local community based group, seeking out the widest variety of project-based experience, getting involved in campaigns and initiatives across the widest spectrum of affected individuals and groups whose human rights are under threat. Actively pursuing this, the door of potential learning about the tools and practise of human rights advocacy comes ajar.

Open letters addressed to states and UN human rights mechanisms, producing discussion papers with ideas for reform and development, writing opinion pieces, offering media statements and comment, using social media, drafting written statements, preparing discussion or talking points, hosting information events, briefings and information events, seeking out opportunities for bilateral informal discussions, assisting the delivery of training sessions – are just a snapshot of the wide range of human rights advocacy projects I’ve contributed to recently.

More importantly, my internship at ISHR has provided me with a rich and diverse range of insights about the practice of planning and carrying out strategic human rights advocacy work, including:

  • Planning and collaboration. Open and free-flowing internal debate about the best approach to advocate for change that will deliver the maximum impact for the concerned or affected group.
  • Time, timing and timeliness. Consideration of the best moment to activate advocacy efforts aligning with various UN institutional timelines is crucial, together with working ahead of known external deadlines.
  • Clarity and precision. The written or spoken message conveyed must have a logical narrative, be correctly legally founded, and propose a workable roadmap towards the desired outcome.
  • Adaptation and reflexes. Human rights advocacy is a dynamic and fluid working environment, things change fast, necessitating an ability to adapt your strategy to the given needs of the moment.
  • Follow-up and reflection. Fostering great working relationships with stakeholders, especially after a push for change is made, is key, as is making the space for reflection on what occurred, why, and how a strategy can be improved.


I visited the wonderful European Court of Human Rights and European Parliament in Strasbourg, France

Human rights advocacy viewed with newfound optics

Kate Gilmore is the current UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. She recently pointed out in an NGO briefing session I attended that as human rights advocates we can collectively achieve an awful lot without a lot of resources. Her point is unfortunately correct. Unfortunate – in that states funding commitment to making human rights progress is sadly not often reflected with the needs on the ground, but also correct – in that we all need to take an optimistic view that acting as human rights advocates, and defenders, we can all make significant inroads into challenging bad practices and laying out a pathway for improvement. Please take a look at the just released ISHR 2016 Annual Report and see what this great organisation can do with few staff, time and resources, but by fully leveraging the sum of its collective knowledge, skills and abilities in a deliberate, progressive and strategic way.

In trying to answer my own question, this blog has probably rather illustrated that doing human rights advocacy is no simple thing, but that by investing and learning about new methods and approaches, it is one valuable way to contribute to advancing both international and national human rights law and policy. Perhaps, this is actually the key lesson that I will take away from my most recent month at ISHR, it certainly has been a very productive time recently indeed.

Wishing everyone all the very best back home.


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