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Human rights advocacy can construct passive “victims,” objectify or displace rightsholders and affected communities, and contribute to their disempowerment. In response to critiques – made by rightsholders, activists, and scholars alike – about the values and effects of such disempowering advocacy models, many advocates are increasingly prioritizing an understanding of these dynamics and reforming practice to better center and support the agency of directly affected individuals and groups. However, the tactics and modalities of these efforts are under-examined in scholarly literature, and many human rights advocates lack access to adequate documentation of tactics and spaces for peer learning. In this article, we seek to contribute to improved practice and to deeper understanding of both the potential and limits of advocates’ responses to critiques of how they relate to rightsholders. We examine: first, how common advocacy practices risk rightsholder disempowerment, and second, the many tactics advocates are developing to promote rightsholders at the center of advocacy and as agents of change, and the key challenges faced in seeking to do so. We ground the analysis in concrete practices, drawn from our experiences as advocates and from a workshop and interviews with other scholars and advocates. We organize our analysis into key moments in the advocacy timeline, from when decisions are made about the issues on which to focus, through to investigations, advocacy, and evaluation. We find that while advocates can engage in disempowering practices at each stage, advocates and rightsholders have at their disposal a wide variety of tools and practices to help redefine the terms of their relationships, in ways that can contribute to restructuring power imbalances. We conclude with recommendations which can further reform the human rights field toward increased support for rightsholder agency and power.


Human Rights Law | Law | Law and Society


Originally published in the Harvard Human Rights Journal.