“How do we mobilize political will and not only get people to care but to act?” James P. Rudolph joins JiC for this post on the challenges in galvanizing support and action to prevent atrocities. For James’ other posts at JiC, see here.
Americans, like most people, have busy schedules. Our obligations are many: school, family, work. All this activity consumes most of our time and attention. So why, given all this frenetic (and often exhausting) activity, should people care about anyone beyond immediate friends and family? Why, to quote Neville Chamberlain, should we care about a “quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing?”
This question is not only a philosophical question; it is also the primary problem bedeviling human rights activists throughout the world. To put it bluntly, if we cared only about family and immediate loved ones, there would be no human rights industry. Thus, mobilizing political will is the sine qua non — the Holy Grail — of human rights activists. How, then, do we mobilize political will and not only get people to care but to act?
The consensus among human rights experts is that mobilizing political will involves four steps: knowing; caring; building confidence; and building or improving institutional processes. This final step — institutional effectiveness — is, notwithstanding the importance of the other factors, first among equals, and it is related to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “Rights Up Front” initiative, both of which exhort the international community to assist states in meeting their human rights obligations.
Knowledge is the first step in the process of getting people to care beyond what is close and familiar. Knowing about Syrians being slaughtered pulls at our heartstrings. These are real people — sons, daughters, mothers, fathers — being tortured, gassed and incinerated. Knowing about the abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria, or the terrible tit-for-tat violence in the Central African Republic, pricks our conscience. But knowing is never enough. The so-called diffusion of responsibility, in which individuals in a group assume that somebody else will take care of the problem, always threatens to undermine the utility of knowledge. Knowledge, therefore, must be coupled with concern, the second step, to truly mean anything. But how and why are people motivated to care? Given the multiplicity of religious and philosophical persuasions in the United States, an appeal to morality could work, but for a more broad-based approach, other motivating factors could and should be explored.
An argument based on national interest, for instance, oftentimes works to get people to realize that problems in one part of the world can quickly become problems right here at home. Osama bin Laden was able to operate out of Afghanistan because it was a failed state in which human rights were nonexistent. And Mohamed Salameh, convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, was a Palestinian from the West Bank who complained about oppressive regulations and other human rights violations. People, in other words, can and usually will care when convinced that abuses or deprivations in faraway lands can indeed affect their everyday lives. The corollary to the national interest argument is the financial argument. That is to say, it is much cheaper to spend money on prevention measures than it is to deploy troops for humanitarian interventions.
The third step to mobilizing political will is building confidence. Citizens, as taxpayers, rightfully expect that whatever policy is proposed will actually make a difference. The United States has endured some difficult times in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this history feeds into a perception that “foreign adventures,” whether humanitarian or not, are best avoided. The feeling, of course, is understandable and natural, but it should not overshadow all the quiet and mostly unknown victories achieved by the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations throughout the world. Notwithstanding Syria, Darfur and the Central African Republic, there has been a decline in the number of genocides and other mass atrocity crimes due, in large part, to the upsurge of conflict prevention measures, conflict management and post-conflict peacebuilding initiatives. Continue reading