Be the bridge: Building a human rights movement during and beyond COVID-19

By: Roger-Mark De Souza, Chief Movement Building Officer

Three billion people are currently living under some form of confinement. Borders are closed among friends and foes preventing travel and exchange. Every continent but Antarctica is reporting a death toll that disproportionally affects the most vulnerable — the uninsured, the sick, the old. To limit the spread of the virus, governments have imposed lock downs, social distancing policies, strict new limits on movement, and nationwide curfews. And success stories in strong democracies such as New Zealand provide strong support for continuing, if not hardening, such policies. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, a commitment to serve, fear of economic hardship, or necessity to survive lead some workers to put their lives at risk as they provide care, food and essential services without adequate protection. We, as human right defenders, have never been more challenged, and yet never been more needed.

We are aware that governments may use COVID-19 to introduce legislation with broader harmful implications for human rights, beyond the current needs to ‘flatten the curve’ and save lives. We also recognize that these conditions could exacerbate widespread disparities and disproportionally affect people living at or below the poverty line, working in the informal sector, the gig economy, or in hard-hit industries such as travel and hospitality. What can we do to ensure that individuals can meet their basic needs for food and housing, but also eventually regain a foothold in the economy? What can we do when we are ourselves confronted with the threat of isolation? How do we raise the questions of inalienable and universal human rights during a pandemic? How do we talk about prisoners of conscience, natural security, the refugee crisis and gun violence during a crisis when we ourselves might be feeling lost, uncertain, and insecure?

What we can do

Building a movement to achieve human rights is challenging in the best of times. As current threats undermine health, livelihoods and tear at the very fabric of society, the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly are curtailed and voices muzzled, it may seem a bridge too far. Yet, it has never been more vital to sustain a movement that is well-informed, motivated to activate, and that collaborates with allies for long-term sustainable human rights protections.

One of the key tenants of movement building — face to face network building and activism is currently beyond our reach. Images of the pandemic bring a sense of grief. Grief not only for the lives lost, but for the world as we have known it. And yet, there is no bridge too far. It is now, more than ever, that we need to seize the moment, build community, test innovations, and energize for tomorrow.

Seize the Moment

Many of us have now resorted to Maslow’s lowest hierarchy of physiological and safety needs for food, water, and security. Some of us have retreated into a Netflix blur of escape beyond the reach of COVID-19. There almost seems to be a self-imposed spiral of silence on human rights at these times. I have found, however, that within and without the boundaries imposed by COVID-19, there are stories that uplift me and reinforce my commitment to human rights today.

Maddie likes to draw and made this illustration of a heart and earth,
on which she, her parents, and new baby brother are standing, smiling,
and in freedom.

Most recently we at Amnesty International USA helped secure the release of Maddie, a 7-year old held in a detention center with her dad for nine months. The COVID-19 pandemic brings renewed urgency to our work advocating for immigrants and asylum-seekers like Maddie who are detained in crowded conditions — with little access to basic hygiene and medical care. The story of her release allows us to see beyond the fear of the other. Her unique experience reminds us that every victory counts, that every voice plays a part. While the pandemic is exposing human rights concerns in stark economic, social, and political terms, it is also highlighting human boundless abilities for selflessness and unity.

As with Maddie’s case, we can continue to grow in this moment when we demonstrate the connectivity of issues. A crisis strips all pretense and brings us back to the core value of human social bonds. It allows us to come together around beliefs and values that drive our human rights work.

Now is the time to highlight our value beyond protests and similar tactics. A key step is to recognize that health and social security are human rights and, as such, need to be prioritized. As the death toll among the impoverished and uninsured rises exponentially faster than in more protected communities, we are reminded that access to health care and funding for hospital goods, services and personnel are at the core of our ability to care for the most vulnerable, but also to preserve the well-being of all.

Build Community

Building a movement transcends individualism. Now is a good time to keep engaging one another in collective hope, and to imagine possibilities for a new future. We build community by harnessing the transformative power of connecting in a time of crisis, of surviving together, of finding paths to resilience. This is an opportunity to unify in our collective aspiration and inspiration.

We celebrate human rights wins at this time. Such as Sierra Leone lifting a ban that prevented pregnant girls from attending school or the Uganda Constitutional Court nullifying a law prohibiting protests. In such times where news overwhelmingly report on increased violence, both within and outside the home, on threats to physical and mental health, on regimes using COVID-19 to push a repressive political agenda, such successes must be celebrated. School will resume, courts will reconvene, and our work must go on.

Test Innovations

This pandemic presents us as human rights defenders with an opportunity to innovate and to find ways to do our work differently. We are testing a range of platforms and approaches that are helping us find new paths to connect, mobilize, and engage.

As we move to virtual organizing, we must continue to involve the ever more tech-savvy and thus ever more tech-dependent younger generations. Technology is value neutral and our young human rights defenders, not the technology, will drive the decisions for good or ill.

Energize for Tomorrow

Mobilizing for short term wins is important not only to sustain our hopes, but also as a building block of our movement. Playing for the long game is, however, vital to ensure our lasting impact, especially as the world gingerly starts looking beyond COVID-19. We must keep our eye on long term human rights wins –including protecting independent, indigenous media, free flow of information, and the absolute right of every individual to freedom of opinion and expression.

What the spread of this virus should teach us is that globally we are all connected. It’s during crises that something new can emerge. And this might be the time that we close down demonization and anger and decisively replace it with empathy and kindness. Human rights must be at the center of all prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts from the start, in order to best protect public health and support the groups and people who are most at risk.

What YOU can do

Reach out and engage: Talk to someone in your network and community about how they are doing and initiate a discussion on the human rights dimension of the crisis for others. Take cues from our video on COVID19 and human rights. As you reach out, share your fears and grief. Then, talk about what gives you hope. Talk about what you are doing to respond. Talk about who is missing at the table and how you might connect and work together.

Try something new: See the guidelines and suggestions that we are producing in our organizing for human rights blog. Or come up with your own strategy and share it with us.

Paint a vision of what’s next: Have a long-term perspective — don’t lose a sense of our prize. Create a journal of stories that you can tell about what you see happening now. How will you talk about this moment six months from now, one year from now? What will you highlight? What are you learning?

Energize for victory: Pause, take care of yourself, go for walks, and rethink what you can do in this moment. Give yourself the space for your productivity to be lower at this moment. Rest. Gather positive images for the longer term good and for addressing the power dynamics inherent in our movement building mission. Harness the regenerative power to take some action when you can and control something in your environment today.

Moving forward when nothing will feel the same

Social movements often re-energize and mobilize in unique ways in times of crisis. To create lasting transformative change, we must persist through the ups and downs. As a movement, we must examine the ways that we protect ourselves. Human rights defenders are being attacked and are more vulnerable now than ever. Our usual liberties to convene, to protest, assemble, are constrained. We have genuine concerns for our health and well-being. Our mental bandwidth to engage, process, and activate are being challenged.

Today, we need to be physically distant, but we are united. Together, we will get through this. Let’s work together to seize the moment; build community and test new innovations. In so doing we will energize for tomorrow and build a bridge to a stronger, different and more nimble human rights movement. Keep safe and be that bridge.

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