In a new report from JustLabs and the Fund for Global Human Rights, Krizna Gomez and Thomas Coombes argue that human rights actors need more than just a better communications strategy to effect real change in today’s hostile climate–they need to embody a bold new narrative of hope and peace and take it straight to the people.
Be the Narrative: How Changing the Narrative Could Revolutionize What It Means to Do Human Rights is a radical response to the global wave of populist and authoritarian leaders who are manipulating controversy, manufacturing crisis, and exploiting conflict to chip away at democratic values, push anti-pluralist and anti-elite beliefs, and entrench illiberal power.
From Brazil to India, populist movements are repressing resistance by delegitimizing human rights as a concept and clamping down on activism. Their tight control over the narrative and effective misinformation campaigns have created a crisis of confidence in human rights.
Concerned by the bleak outlook, JustLabs and the Fund brought together 12 human rights groups from Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, Hungary, India, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela to diagnose the populist threat and develop unconventional solutions to this challenging global context.
The groups worked with experts outside the human rights field—from neuroscientists to marketing gurus—to conceptualize a new framework for the future of human rights work. Instead of doubling down on defensive strategies to combat populist attacks, these groups workshopped innovative new ideas and produced 12 promising prototypes for how human rights actors can reclaim their space and revitalize their work by sharing culture, fostering cooperation, and building community.
The root of the problem, JustLabs and the Fund discovered, is that media-savvy populists have set the agenda—human rights work is all about their language, their stories, and their rules. Boxed in by hostile framing and outplayed in the traditional arenas of power, human rights actors have undermined themselves by reinforcing an unfavorable narrative.
The human rights community has been slow to respond effectively, relying on outdated strategies and the power of state institutions to protect decades of progress. Easily coopted, these legacy institutions are not rising to today’s unique challenges.
But it’s time to stop playing by their rules, say Gomez and Coombes. Building off learning that emerged from the workshops, they’ve laid out a series of concrete actions that the human rights community can take to address this narrative deficit and empower a future of bold, transformative activism.
Because human rights are a positive alternative to the politics of hate and fear, but changing the narrative requires more than just clever branding. Realizing a better future hinges on a huge strategic shift that puts culture, cooperation, and community at the heart of human rights work. New allies, younger voices, and a focus on solutions rather than problems are just the start.
From tactical changes like better framing to global strategies that emphasize collaboration across sectors and put people first, Be the Narrative reimagines what the human rights movement should look like—and what it’s capable of achieving.