I pulled a Brazilian human rights activist aside, in between cups of Turkish coffee. “The protests aren’t just about transportation; they’re about everything.” I was in Istanbul for five days, for a convening of mass atrocity prevention practitioners, and wanted to grab a quick thought on a recent wave of public protests. Over the course of our conversation, the activist expressed a perfunctory solidarity: with his fellow Brazilians, yes, but also with a global, often divergent, and often nebulous community of youth human rights practitioners. “I think this is an international movement,” he said, without much further explanation.
Solidarity is a difficult idea, one which, in my experience, rarely comes naturally to U.S. human rights activists. Domestic activism rests on a movement’s certainty, and on its ability to plan a path to victory: tactics, campaigns, and strategy, the secular trinity of grassroots mobilization, aspire to the continuous improvement of known outcomes. Solidarity, where applied, sheds the certainties of power; it transfers voice and agency away from the activist, towards the survivor. The Istanbul convening, organized by the U.S.-based Nexus Fund, boasted practitioners and activists from thirty-three countries, six continents. I went as a U.S. practitioner, a recent Georgetown graduate, and an Echenberg Fellow—that last bit, I think, left me poised for the disagreements ahead. The activists didn’t agree on much, but they achieved a singular point of consensus: from a moral, if not strategic perspective, solidarity is the most appropriate posture for Western human rights activists.
One participant, an educator from New York, suggested that, as the mass atrocity prevention community evolves, the plurality of ideas—rather than a common language—should shape the practice of prevention; indeed, each participant possessed their own concept of solidarity, informed by local contexts and personal histories. For many participants, the specific mechanisms of solidarity, particularly between Western activists and their colleagues in the diverse “global South,” remained unclear. Sticky power dynamics often muddle the equation: between donor and grantee, between conflict-free and conflict-affected, between those with public media platforms and those without. When it comes to outcomes, everyone seemed to agree, it’s a not-so-simple matter of broadening voice and allowing for agency, particularly for survivors of mass violence.
The Nexus Fund’s goals, it would appear, in many ways mimic the Echenberg family’s: to broaden transnational communities of conscience, and to strengthen norms of human rights and civilian protection. In both cases, the future is simultaneously random and undetermined; indeed, that’s the objective. For most, we left Istanbul with stronger bonds, but a helpfully foggy notion of the mass atrocity prevention’s future trajectory. In my mind, this is a mark of success: if the community of practice exists, positive outcomes will follow.
Daniel Solomon ~ 2013 McGill Echenberg Fellow