Social Movements and Human Rights

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SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS

“First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they fight you
Then you WIN"”
- Ghandi

INTRODUCTION
In the past few months we have been witness to the successful referendum in Sudan where people decided the fate of their country and exercised their right to Self Determination. While in Egypt we watched the unprecedented scale of a peoples revolution not only demand the resignation of a seating President but demand access to their Civil and Political Rights as well as Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Hence it is the purpose of this paper to:

• Analyse the role social movements played in each State; • The methods used;
• Their impact on the final outcome;
• The future of social movements in the promotion of Human Rights.

WHAT ARE SOCIAL MOVEMENTS?
In the past social movements have been studied under the field of ‘collective behaviour’ in sociology, where the attention focused on ‘negatively valued groups’[1] such as mobs and riots. However today social movements are distinguished from other forms of collective behaviour as ‘groups which are long-lasting and which have a clear program or purpose’[2]. Therefore a social movement is defined as ‘a large-scale, in formal effort designed to correct, supplement, overthrow, or in some fashion influence the social order’[3]. Hence, social movements draw their members from the ranks of persons who have encountered a common problem and feel that something can be done about it and want to do something about it.

WHY STUDY SOCIAL MOVEMENTS IN THE CONTEXT OF HUMAN RIGHTS?
Many contemporary analysts have recognised the growing importance of non-state actors such as Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the promotion and protection of human rights principles. However there is a considerable lack of literature that deals with the role social movements’ play. Additionally, human rights as a discourse of international law are seldom discussed theoretically in relation to mass politics or popular resistance[4]. Hence, lawyers generally focus on institutions whether governmental or private. However, recent work on legal theory has begun to position the notion of an “interpretive community”[5] that creates law and gives it meaning through community based action. Therefore it is the position of this paper that; social movements emphasize the importance of ‘extra-institutional’ mobilization which fills a gap between discussions of the failure of institutions viz., the protection of human rights. This paper however does not claim that all social movements are ‘progressive’. It recognizes that these movements do engage in cultural politics that are problematic to the stability of the State. Nevertheless, it can be argued that these movements may have emerged as a reaction to the failure of institutions to protect human rights; further highlighting the possible importance of social movements in the study and protection of human rights. Literature additionally suggests that it is the oppression of rights that raises the awareness of the ‘rights’ themselves; and for that reason, in their promotion “rights assume a symbolic power” by becoming part of the language of political debate[6]. On the other hand the mere existence of this discourse does not have the power to instigate collective action; and therefore rights are only affective when they are attached to social actors or movements.[7] It is therefore the oppression of rights by authoritarian regimes that contribute to raising the profile of rights and makes them central to social movements. To put it differently, the discussion of rights play a key role in translating specific demands into a common language, therefore facilitating the construction of political alliances and movement networks which increase resources. In this sense, through a process of organization and demand-making, knowledge of rights arises. Social movements then engage in four activities; they...
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