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The Efficacy of Cooperation in Human Rights Promotion

David Esarey wrote “The Efficacy of Cooperation in Human Rights” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship


The promotion of human rights is perhaps one of the most elusive goals in modern international affairs. While many human rights workers view their claims as absolute there is an ever-present disconnect between discourse and action. Many organizations exist to champion these causes, though their efficacy is hampered by a number of issues, including the inflexibility of human rights language and limitations in resources.

To remedy these problems there are several things human rights organizations can do. Most notably, the degree to which human rights NGOs can advocate for change is greatly enhanced when multiple organizations from distinct backgrounds are able to coordinate on an issue and find common ground to work together.


Limitations in the Pursuit of Human Rights


Despite the importance of human rights, human rights advocates and organizations do not always reach their stated goals, which can lead to frustration and cynicism. Yet, it would be far more useful to examine the underlying reasons for this lack of progress. Four of these obstacles are particularly worthy of discussion before turning to possible ways of enhancing effective promotion of human rights.




First, human rights workers often insist on absolutist language. Human rights are fundamental principles to guide the treatment of all people. As such, those who support them often take their relevance as self-evident and treat any further justification as unnecessary. Ultimately, such a principled stand can be counter-productive. Rather than encouraging dialogue it can serve to undermine the promotion of human rights by presenting claims in such inflexible language that there is no room for compromise.

Part of this inflexibility comes from perceptions on the origins of human rights. While codified in international law now, many still point to natural law as the underlying source of modern human rights principles. (1) This philosophical framework holds that the values of human rights supersede the role of states and are found in the natural order of the world (such as through a Creator). While this view has not been a significant legal philosophy for many years, (2) it is still a fundamental way of approaching human rights work for many, particularly for those prompted by philosophical values. (3) For these individuals, it can be tempting to view all human rights (which are now a part of international law) as jus cogens principles: legal principles so fundamental to international law that no other claim can take precedence. (4) While several human rights principles are commonly accepted as jus cogens rules, such as the prohibitions on genocide and torture, these are the exceptions. 

In fact, many who are skeptical of human rights in general cite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, which is the fundamental human rights document from which all subsequent treaties have drawn, was always intended as an aspirational document rather than binding law. (5) The UDHR was not a treaty and therefore did little more than present shared values. As a result, these critics view all human rights as aspirational values to be realized gradually and only when it is feasible.

Human rights workers need to be able to advocate for their positions when other parties do not see them as manifest. If they do not, the conversation ends before it begins. Rather than persuasion, dialogue, or compromise, there is stubborn insistence on the value of human rights. This principled approach may be morally satisfying, but it often stands in the way of successful lobbying efforts.




Secondly, the fact that human rights are balanced against other priorities in international affairs is a political reality that human rights workers need to accept. Policy makers in democratic states must weigh the cries for human rights enforcement against issues of international governance, economics, and the priorities of their constituents. This transforms human rights promotion into a much more political and nuanced field. (6) 




Thirdly, money, people, and time are all required to adequately address any substantial issue. Unfortunately all of these resources are finite, turning claims-making into a competition.

Anti-human trafficking organizations vie for resources, not just against other anti-human trafficking organizations, but against sustainable energy or micro-credit groups as well. While collaboration may be ideal, it is often far more cut-throat than one might hope.

Consequently, organizations very rarely have the resources to do all the work they would like. They must prioritize their mission and their focus to make do with what they have.

Further, organizations are forced to prepare for the fact that future resources are not guaranteed. Donations, volunteers, and even government funding (if present at all) can fluctuate based on public interest, the economy, or any number of other factors. This adds an unfortunate layer of uncertainty to the work they do, as they may not be able to continue it indefinitely. Human rights work requires a mixture of immediate and long-term efforts. The uncertainty of funding forces many organizations to prioritize the former over the latter, limiting their overall impact.




Finally, much like resource limitations, the limited attention span of the general populace can place constraints on the possible effectiveness of human rights work. The popularity of a cause and a population’s willingness to support it can dictate how much media attention and funding an organization receives or how much political pressure they can apply on policy-makers. Effective claims-makers can rally support and stir the public to action. This results in more attention, which further enhances the resources and leverage they control. However, this is not an endless cycle of growth. Public attention shifts, often surprisingly quickly.

In the United States, relatively recent examples such as the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign to combat the extremist group Boko Haram or the response to the Ebola outbreak illustrate this. These campaigns, which sought to combat serious problems, achieved great success in amassing a large following. However, that support dwindled as quickly as it was gained. Despite the fact that the problems remained, they were no longer covered by the media.

Most people want to send a check, share a hashtag or endure a bucket of ice water, feel like they have contributed, and then go on with their lives. The number of people willing to remain engaged with an issue for an extended period of time is much smaller. As a result, while an organization may stay active for many years, the times during which they have optimal resources may be limited.

These limitations are among the challenges to effective human rights work. While many are drawn to this area of work for moral reasons, they quickly find themselves in the middle of what may be disappointingly political debates. From the scarcity of resources to the fact that human rights are merely one of many priorities, disillusionment is in danger of replacing idealism.


What Can Be Done


In response to the limitations of human rights promotion, there are a number of steps that organizations can take. While there is no way to eliminate these problems, approaching the work from a different perspective could greatly boost an organization’s capacity to affect change in their area of focus.


Realistic Idealism


Before they are able to make any progress in their work, human rights workers must begin by ensuring that they have a realistic understanding of the world in which they work. Idealism may have motivated them to get into their field and it may continue to serve to encourage them as they face difficulties; but if they refuse to participate in debates because of the belief that human rights ought always to take precedence over other concerns, such a mindset will only limit effectiveness. Human rights activists need to be sure that they understand the political atmosphere of human rights and are willing to participate in it. This is not compromising their ideals; it is merely demonstrating a willingness to engage with them on different footing. It shows flexibility and adaptability, which will ultimately strengthen the work they are attempting to do.




With a solid understanding of the pragmatic elements of the interplay between human rights and international affairs, human rights organizations can engage in the next major step to improve effectiveness, namely, cooperation with other organizations. The work of human rights organizations can be greatly improved when they are able to find common ground with different organizations and use this common ground to address the issue together. 

The first way in which cooperation between different groups enhances the work of both is that it opens up the levels of discourse that can be used to address the issue at hand. Different types of groups have different approaches and strategies to address issues. For example, religious groups, environmental groups, and feminist groups all have varying frames with which to understand and discuss issues. Each type of discourse can be effective, given the circumstances. When groups are working together they have the flexibility to engage an issue in a variety of ways, depending on the circumstances and audience. This makes them more persuasive and can strengthen their overall arguments, as is illustrated in the example of inter-group cooperation below. 

Secondly, human rights work can be strengthened by broadening the support base for the issue. As mentioned, the ability to engage the issue on multiple levels make claims more convincing, which can increase the number of supporters. It also provides the foundational support base from each group. As stated, most supporters of a cause are transient and less willing to stay engaged for extended periods of time. While these supporters can be necessary, it is the stable base that is the most fundamental to long-term work and sustainable change. A stable base adds legitimacy to the work because it makes clear it is not a fringe issue. When different groups with differing agendas, priorities, and values come together to work on an issue, it cannot be written off as a topic only relevant to a small pocket of the population, which also results in more political power. Democratically-elected leaders are concerned with what their constituents think. When organizations can demonstrate that substantial segments of society are in agreement, those leaders are under more pressure to act.

Finally, cooperation increases the resources available to address an issue, which occurs in two key ways. First, the broader support base can translate into more resources through donations and volunteers. With more people in support of the work that organizations are doing, obtaining adequate financial and personnel capital is easier. Second, since these groups are coordinating, there is likely to be less overlap in the work being done. They can use the resources they have more effectively because they are working together toward a singular goal. Rather than each attempting to do all of the work on their own, it is being done only once with multiple bases of resources. 

Through the adoption of a realistic understanding of human rights work, organizations are free to have the flexibility needed to engage with differing groups. This cooperation serves to enhance the work of everyone through broader forms of discourse and support. The efficacy of this type of coordination can best be illustrated through an example of drastically different groups coming together on an issue of shared importance, resulting in a stronger voice and more effective work.


Example of Inter-Group Cooperation


While there are numerous examples of differing groups working together to address a cause more effectively, one case which stands out is the early anti-human trafficking movement in the United States. At the turn of the millennium, there were various ways for the issue to be discussed and understood. Two groups formed an unlikely partnership in advocating for a certain framework: conservative Christian groups and certain feminist groups. (7)

Despite being otherwise very disparate groups that many would expect to see at odds with one another rather than cooperating, the issue of human trafficking – and sex trafficking specifically – drew them together. Both groups agreed on sex trafficking as highly exploitative and successfully established the framework through which human trafficking continues to be understood by many. For better or for worse, sex trafficking and labor trafficking were separated, with preference given to the former despite the fact that the latter is more common. (8) In addition, the perception of victimhood took on a very gendered role, with the standard victims being women and girls. Neither this hierarchy of types of trafficking, the separation of sex and labor trafficking, nor the assumptions of victimized groups were immediately obvious; they were formed through effective claims-making.

Christian and feminist groups found something on which they could agree – the evils of sexual violence against women – and chose to work together. As a result, both religious and feminist populations were prompted to act, creating both a tremendous body of support and considerable pressure on the government for action. The framework that was developed carried over to American policy, (9) and has had such resonance that it is continues to be a dominant framework.




The promotion of human rights around the world is an area of work that presents vast difficulties. From the inflexibility of human rights language to limitations in funding and attention, human rights organizations regularly find themselves faced with considerable resistance. These difficulties may never be eradicated completely, but there is more that can be done to overcome them. By finding areas of common interest and working together, groups from various backgrounds and representing different populations can enhance their work and be more effective in championing human rights causes. As the human trafficking case demonstrates, the most effective lobbying can be done by unlikely partnerships. Greater cooperation can serve to spread human rights norms and increase their status in global affairs.




Many thanks to Boukje Kistemaker for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


About the Author


David Esarey received his MA in International Human Rights from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and a Graduate Certificate in International Law and Human Rights from the Sturm College of Law. During this time he served as the project manager for a global study of human trafficking patterns and flows at the Human Trafficking Center in Denver, Colorado. He received a BA in Social Work from Asbury University.


1. See, for example, Alston, Philip and Ryan Goodman. International Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 490-492.

2. Lowe, Vaughan. International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 28. The theory of natural law was largely replaced by the positivist philosophy. This view holds that the only legitimate source of the law is the state. Natural law is still held by many as a philosophical worldview, but it has largely ceased to be a legitimate source of international law.

3. Ironically, while the philosophical values found in many of the world’s religions lead many to believe in universal rights, in practice religion has often come into conflict with human rights policy and promotion.

4. Lowe, Vaughan. International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 58-60.

5. Risse, Thomas and Kathryn Sikkink. “The Socialization of International Human Rights Norms into Domestic Practices: Introduction,” in Thomas Risse, Stephen C. Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, editors, The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 1.

6. It is important to note that human rights often do play a significant role in foreign policy. In many situations, such as LGBT rights around the world, human rights and foreign policy have been used together to strengthen one another. However, human rights workers cannot assume that this will always be the case and are often forced to present their claims as competing with any number of other considerations.

7. Zimmerman, Yvonne. Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

8. Hamaker, Rex. “Separating Sex and Labor Trafficking is Ahistorical, Misguided, Harmful.” Human Trafficking Center. September 10, 2015. http://humantraffickingcenter.org/human-trafficking/separating-sex-and-labor-trafficking-is-ahistorical-misguided-harmful/.

9. DeStephano, Anthony. The War on Human Trafficking: U.S. Policy Assessed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008. This framework is seen both in popular discourse on the topic as well as in official policy, such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000).



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