Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Alison Brysk's "Speaking Rights to Power"

Alison Brysk is the Mellichamp Professor of Global Governance in the Global and International Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has authored or edited 10 books on international human rights, and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on human rights, international relations, civil society, and Latin American politics. In 2013-2014, Brysk will be a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Brysk applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Speaking Rights to Power: Constructing Political Will, and reported the following:
I wrote Speaking Rights to Power to try to understand how human rights rhetoric works, and how to make it work better. I wanted to extract the lessons from twenty years of study of human rights campaigns, about how to give voice to the powerless in a way that will make the world listen. As I built out from my own studies of the power of symbolic politics for situations as diverse as Argentina's Mothers of the Disappeared, global indigenous rights, and campaigns against human trafficking, a pattern of communication politics emerged. Human rights campaigns can gain greater recognition and response when they combine compelling speakers, well-framed messages, recognizable patterns, public performances, skillful use of appropriate media, and the construction of attentive audience circuits.

Page 99 applies this framework to compare international response to two of the most urgent and massive episodes of human suffering of the past decade: Darfur and Congo. The title of the section that begins on that page is "Story vs. Silence"--the passage goes on to argue that the forms of abuse in both places had overlapping characteristics and causes, but that "what differed was not so much the reality as the representation." In this case, the power of framing the mass killing in Darfur as a genocide evoked much stronger international mobilization and a measure of intervention that contributed to a decline in the worst violence.

The implication of this analysis is that victims, advocates, and policymakers can learn better ways to construct political will to improve human rights conditions. Clearly this involves recognizing and resisting current violations—but it also means recognizing and empowering vulnerable people; speaking rights to the powers of speech, political participation, and social change to prevent future abuses.
Learn more about the book and author at Alison Brysk's website and the Speaking Rights to Power Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue