Human Rights in the Streets
Robert L. Bernstein International Human Rights Symposium
March 27-28, 2014
In the 1990s, popular mobilization in Eastern Europe brought about rapid political liberalization. Those “color” revolutions seemed to vindicate Hannah Arendt’s claim that violence is no match for power and that power comes from people acting together in public. Many expected the Arab Spring to be a second demonstration of the power of popular mobilization to defeat the institutions of violence. Events in Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Libya and Egypt suggest that would have been too hasty a conclusion. While there are many difference between the mobilization 20 years ago and that of the last few years, one feature stands out: the absence of prominent or charismatic leadership and of institutional structure.
Despite the uncertainty of result, spontaneous political mobilization appears to have gone viral. There has been a paradigm shift from a politics of slow, hard-fought change to a politics of uncontainable explosion. The explosions seem to fade quickly, as in the Occupy Movement, or they lead to sustained violence, as in Syria, Libya, and Egypt. It remains to be seen where they will lead in Turkey and Brazil.
The arrival of leaderless politics raises new questions for the human rights community, which has traditionally focused on governmental abuse of power. Power is on display in the streets as well, and it, too, can be abused. There are frequent reports, for example, of sexual abuse and of sectarian conflict in these popular movements. Apart from opportunistic abuse, there is the deeper question of whether this explosive politics can actually lead to the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Thursday, March 27
12:30 - 2:00 Current Bernstein and Robina Fellows Discuss Their Work
4:00 - 5:45 The Future of Dissent
Round table discussion which will draw out contrasts between what being a dissident used to mean and what it will mean with new politics, new geography, new technology. Scholars will join activists of past and present movements in a conversation that will also explore the role of human rights language in the future of dissent.
Friday, March 28
10:15 – 11:45 Panel 1: Leadership
Do new forms of political mobilization create new forms of leadership? Can we consider a person using social media to coordinate a political demonstration a leader? To answer that requires that we have some idea of what we expect of political leadership. Some leaders exercise a moral influence by virtue of their character. Other are in a position to negotiate with the opposition and commit to a political process. Who is performing these roles in today’s popular politics? Is the language of human rights more useful for political leadership or for the mobilized political masses? This panel will look to specific examples including the Occupy Movement in the United States, Egypt’s two revolutionary moments, and political mobilization in Brazil or Turkey.
1:00-3:00 Panel 2: Violence
In their original aspiration, all of these popular political movements have been nonviolent. Few have succeeded in remaining nonviolent. The great nonviolent movements of the past have been led by charismatic leaders: Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. In the absence of such leadership, is a politics in the streets likely to be a first step toward violent confrontation with the existing regime? When violence does occur, is the consequence likely to be a splintering of the movement into fragments, some in conflict with others? Is spontaneous, mass politics the beginning of revolution or of civil war? Is violence inevitable in a way that tends to sideline the traditional role of international human rights advocates, fearful of appearing to side with movements that ultimately embrace violence?
3:15 – 5:00 Panel 3: Intervention
Is there a role for human rights interventions once politics takes to the streets? Intervention in Libya led to a fractured and fractious polity, in some ways similar to the situation in Iraq after an earlier intervention. Does intervention inevitably mean taking sides? Picking sides or calling for regime change has been anathema to international human rights advocates: Does the new paradigm force them to give up what some have viewed as the hypocrisy of their neutrality? United Nations peacekeepers have traditionally intervened at the end of conflicts, not at their beginning. Must this role, too, be rethought? Is there room in the context of these unstable uprisings for something like human rights monitors? Could they make up for the absence of movement leadership?
5:30 Reception and Introduction of the 2014-2015 Robert L. Bernstein Fellows, Robina Fellows and Gruber Fellows