In the letter heralding the establishment of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson stated that '…in matters such as these, governments are prepared to follow only where public opinion leads’. Eleanor Roosevelt remarked that the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘… carry no weight unless the people know them, unless the people understand them, unless the people demand that they be lived’.
In recent years, it has felt that human rights advocates have regarded majority public opinion as something to be contained or ignored rather than nurtured and mobilised. In doing so, advocates have concentrated more on hard won laws, institutions and the rules-based order and less on the public opinion upon which, as George Orwell observed, our freedom depends.
Yet today these same pillars of democracy and human rights – including the space for human rights groups to operate at all – are facing a serious threat from populist leaders and movements whose core strength is their mastery of storytelling. Alongside the new opportunities that digital media provide to target and influence people, the consequences of this lack of investment by human rights groups and their funders in capturing the public’s ‘hearts and minds’ has become all too clear. Against the simplicity of populist slogans – whether Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ or Bolsonaro’s ‘Brazil Above Everything, God Above Everyone’– human rights campaigners have struggled to get their messages through.
Public susceptibility for populist ideals has begun to refocus the attention of human rights groups on the importance of enlisting, sustaining and mobilising broad public support, particularly through strategic communications and narrative strategies. However, there is a danger of ignoring lessons already learned.