As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70, a new generation of human rights activists are reinventing themselves to fight for old rights amid a new world order. Based not on declarations, charters and international bodies, but on the values which underpin them – justice, fairness, equality – they shun the language of their predecessors while embracing the same struggle.
This is especially true across the countries of the former Soviet Union, where institutionalized mechanisms to defend and advance human rights proved highly successful for the majority of the past seven decades.
As a founding member of the United Nations, the Soviet Union signed up to its various principles, charters and ideals wholesale following the Second World War. Throughout the Cold War, human rights defenders behind the Iron Curtain used this as the basis for their activism. International declarations and agreements, especially the 1975 Helsinki Accords, gave dissidents an important tool to hold their regimes accountable.
In Czechoslovakia, the signatories of Charter 77 explicitly criticised the government for not abiding by rights guaranteed in various international agreements. Those same individuals went on to become leaders of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
In the early 1990s, democratic reforms throughout the region were rooted in a belief that the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent documents were timeless and provided a foundation to build a freer society.
However, in the new realities of the 21st century, the mechanisms to promote human rights that grew out of the Universal Declaration are showing their age. Authoritarianism is on the rise across the world, with popular leaders cracking down on human rights defenders.
Freedom House found 2018 was the 12th consecutive year that the world became less free. Civicus, which specifically monitors the conditions for civil society activists and human rights defenders, found civil society was “under attack” in more countries than it wasn’t, with all post-Soviet countries (except Georgia) ranging between “obstructed” and “closed”.
Troublingly, both the willingness and the ability of Western bastions of human rights are also on the wane. Inside the EU, talk of illiberal democracy gains traction, and internal crises divert attention away from the global stage.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, younger activists and civil society are giving up on western governments and international organizations to advocate on their behalf.
Pavel Chikov, director of the Agora group, said recently that, “Russian human rights groups no longer have a role model,” calling the liberal human rights agenda “obsolete”.
Growing disillusionment has led many rights groups to shift away from appealing to outsiders for support. Younger campaigners no longer frame their work in the traditional language of human rights, and many do not even consider themselves human rights defenders. Instead of referring to international agreements violated, they focus on solving practical problems, or creating their own opportunities to advance values of equality, justice and fairness.
Formats too have changed. Throughout the region, tools used by civil society to raise social consciousness are becoming diverse, dynamic and smart. Instead of one-person legal tour de forces, genuinely grassroots, tech-powered, peer-to-peer or horizontal networks are proving effective. Media, music, art, film, innovative street protests, urbanism and online initiatives focused on local communities are coming to replace petitions and international advocacy.
Team 29, an association of Russian human rights lawyers and journalists, is among the most successful of this new generation. It has repositioned itself as part-legal aid provider, part-media outlet. Its website offers a new mix of news on ongoing trials, animated online handbooks for protesters, videos on torture and a new interactive game telling young people how to behave if they are detained by police.
What may look like PR-friendly add-ons are actually core to their operation. Anastasia Andreeva, the team’s media expert, says: “Before, we consulted some 30 clients, now we reach tens of thousands of people.”
Azerbaijani activist Emin Milli also embodies this journey of wider civil society – turning away from the international towards local solutions. In the early 2000s, he was a traditional human rights defender, successfully using international mechanisms, such as the Council of Europe to assist political prisoners.
After his own arrest and return to activism, Milli changed tack. “When I was in jail, I had a lot of time to think,” he told the Oslo Freedom Forum. “I decided to do something that will give voice to millions.” His idea? Meydan TV – an online-only independent TV channel, targeting a young audience, which now reaches more than 500,000 people inside Azerbaijan through its Facebook page.
The key to Meydan’s success is its accessibility. Milli says: “We do stories about ordinary people. Real Azeris who have everyday problems.” Through its smart coverage, investigating and highlighting how injustice affects these ordinary people, and not referring to UN-enshrined rights and responsibilities, Meydan is “giving a voice to people who fight for women’s rights, people who fight for political rights, for civil liberties, and everybody who feels they are voiceless”.
Music, too, is increasingly being used as a vehicle to realize human rights. Though he might shun the label, Azeri rapper Jamal Ali is perhaps one of the country’s most well-known “human rights defenders”. His songs about injustice and corruption regularly go viral, raising national and international awareness in the same way a statement at the UN General Assembly might have done three decades ago.
In a 2017 hit, he highlighted how two young men had been tortured by police and faced 10 years in prison for spraying graffiti on a statue of former president Heydar Aliyev. In response, the regime arrested Ali’s mother, demanding that he remove the video from YouTube, only to ensure that Ali’s song went even more viral among Azeri youngsters.
Gender equality and women’s rights is also being advanced through unexpected new champions. In Kyrgyzstan, 20-year-old singer Zere Asylbek sparked a feminist shockwave earlier this year with her video Kyz (“Girl”). “Don’t tell me what to wear, don’t tell me how to behave,” she sings, bearing her top to reveal her bra. Seen by millions, the Kyrgyz-language feminist anthem has set off a new #MeToo debate in the Central Asian country, where many young women are still abducted, raped and forced to marry.
In the wake of the video, a first “feminist bar” is about to open in Bishkek. Other feminist videos have been used to directly address the issue of bride-kidnapping, with animated cartoons being used as part of local campaigns to change mindsets in a conservative society.
Perhaps most excitingly, an all-female team of 18 to 20-year-olds is building the country’s first micro-satellite. “Girls taking us into space is the best message against sexism,” says Bektour Iskender, whose news site Kloop initiated the project. He says the girls' project has a deep social mission, promoting national pride and the country’s return to advanced technological development.
These examples – and countless more – show that civic groups see no value in lobbying an increasingly disinterested West and sluggish international organizations. Instead they focus their energy where they can achieve real, concrete change within their own communities. Their campaigns are grassroots-led and use local languages and issues their communities understand. They target specific audiences, often using technology and creative formats, with a heavy dose of visual and artistic elements.
Addressing discrimination, environmental protection, corruption, health issues, women’s rights, they speak not about the failure of their states to abide by international accords, but about common dignity and life opportunities, addressing people on a direct human level.
Clearly, the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are still valid, but their approach and the packaging have changed. “We all want to change the world,” says Sergey Karpov of the Russian online media and philanthropic platform Takie Dela. “Today communications are the best way”.