The demographics of Yale reflect a superhero majority. Most people here, students and faculty alike, are consumed by a desire to save the world. Maybe this is a symptom of being a part of the generation most entranced by the inspirational chant of “Yes We Can” or, as Newsweek put it, “Generation O.” No matter the reason, activism groups on campus are becoming more vocal. From the reformed Reach Out group to the Movement for Beauty and Justice, from the Globalist’s new blog to the Global Development Alliance, the new Yale Afghanistan Forum and The Yale Journal of Human Rights relaunch last month, it’s clear that people on campus are asking, “What is the best way to improve our world and get others involved and excited about the process?”
We may have revolutionary ideas to change social institutions and modify international affairs, but how do we know if they are practical? Let’s define “saving the world” as bettering human rights records — political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights to be specific— thereby improving living standards across the globe. Sustainable activism may then be defined as activism that is well-informed, works within a legal framework that is conducive to international human rights standards, and involves the community.
To be well-informed — intimately engaged with and in dialogue with your cause — immerse yourself in a range of literature and experiences. More importantly, be open to reevaluating your views, challenging your position and changing your opinion. In high school, I attended the Seeds of Peace International Summer Camp. There, I had the unique opportunity to interact with people from conflict regions in the Middle East and South Asia. These teenagers experience devastating hardships and indignities in their every day lives and are trapped in a cycle of anger, hatred and violence. In a dialogue session with Indians and Pakistanis, a Pakistani boy, Turab, recounted the narrative of the creation of Pakistan, “In my textbook, it said many Muslims were slaughtered by their Hindu brothers. Because of this, we needed our own state.” An Indian girl, Shivani, responded with her own interpretation, “My teacher told me that the British incited the Hindus to mistrust Muslims,” she added, defensively, “Hindus also died during Partition!”
Be a diplomatic reader; be willing to consider all perspectives in the process of creating your own. Misinformation and bias inform activism and political decisions too often. Before beginning your activism do not familiarize yourself with the “right” history or perspective because there is none. Instead recognize that a variety of perspectives exist and that they should exist. As Voltaire said, “I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Perhaps both sides are right: Hindus killed Muslims, Muslims killed Hindus and, as a result, the consequence of the two separate histories (and perhaps the focus of one’s activism) is the unresolved tension between Muslims and Hindus.
Next, study the law — the domestic laws of the country concerned, the international conventions it is bound by (even if the country does not abide by them), the domestic and international courts the country operates in. Former Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh once commented that the United States’ persistent torture tactics in Guantanamo Bay were reflective of a change in America’s position towards human rights law, shifting from a policy of “zero tolerance to zero accountability.”
America has a reliable justice system, and has signed international covenants — the Convention Against Torture ratified in 1988, for one — intended to safeguard human rights. To make sound, legitimate and persuasive arguments activists must assume the role of part-time (or indeed, full-time) lawyers, and invoke the rule of the land and the international community in order. Continuous violations of the law risk becoming custom — customary law — and the cultural norm.
On the other hand, remarkable human rights victories are only legitimized and cemented as inviolable fact in a courtroom. If no domestic legal system exists, activists must cajole politicians and global leaders into establishing one while looking to the outside world for inspiration and support. For example, The New Yorker reported the efforts of Hu Shuli, a Chinese magazine editor operating under strict censorship regulations, to expose government human rights abuse in her magazine Caijing. Shuli’s extensive government networking protects her from persecution, but she also takes a cautious approach to her magazine’s presentation. Instead of outwardly condemning some Chinese communist policies, she makes constructive suggestions or criticisms. Shuli cleverly operates within the legal system, using the institution that violates rights to make a case for improving rights. Similarly, The National Council of Human Rights (NCHR) in Egypt works directly with Egyptian politicians, even establishing personal relationships with some of the most powerful people in the government. As a result, the NCHR has insight into Egyptian jurisdiction. This insight, in turn, allows the organization to determine the specific laws it should push to reform, advocate or repeal. Moreover, it also allows the NCHR to communicate to the Egyptian population what their specific rights are, motivating them to fight for their rights when threatened by the government. Human rights are inextricably tied to politics and the law; you cannot pursue one and be taken seriously without involving the other.
This connection leads to another path towards fortified activism: showing the community and politicians that they have a stake in the process. The world would be better off without poverty, AIDS, nuclear weapons, and general evilness, but if individuals, corporations and governments are profiting — monetarily or politically — from such ideas and institutions, why would they stop participating in them? Moral people are motivated to act if the action is inherently good, but most people are inherently selfish. They need a reason to agree with the activists and lawyers: they need motivation.
This motivation presents itself by involving those at stake. Two years ago, the participants in a Reach Out trip to the Philippines lived in a Manila slum working with an NGO called Gawad Kalinga. Gawad Kalinga preached human rights values from a Christian perspective to the Filipino community, a predominantly conservative Catholic country. This connection to popular ideology has garnered support from wealthy Catholic Filipinos increasing the NGO’s capacity to rebuild slums and provide education and rehabilitation to slum dwellers and guaranteeing its success.
Similarly, during my time living and working in Jenin Refugee Camp of the West Bank, Palestinians and Israelis who held political positions, including a former Palestinian terrorist and an Israeli soldier working in Hebron, expressed their belief that it is in Israel’s security interests to pursue diplomatic talks and a human rights agenda with Palestine. Such a policy would devalue the authority and legitimacy of terrorists and settlers who use the current political situation to justify their behavior.
Finally we can save the world — pushing decision makers to implement our revolutionary ideas — by becoming the decision makers, lawyers, politicians, journalists, CEOs and NGO leaders ourselves and empowering others to do the same.
Despite his white dhoti, Gandhi was not seen as an Indian hippie. His background in law (he worked as a lawyer in South Africa), together with his eloquence and charisma, enabled him to be considered a real politician and global player, capable of rallying support for Indian independence and destabilizing the British Empire. The same is true of many world leaders. The grassroots movement that is taking place on campus should embrace the Yale environment and remember that real solutions will only happen if one is not only educated, but can also clearly and persuasively articulate these ideas from a position of power. That is how superheroes are born.
Sarika Arya is a junior in Timothy Dwight College and the Co-Editor in Chief of The Yale Journal of Human Rights.