Fostering links with the general public: a role for civil society

By: Samantha Backman

On a soft August evening, I gathered with my coworkers from BCNL to attend the launch of an art exhibition in the Crystal Garden, a lush green oasis in the heart of Sofia. The sun’s rays permeated the cover of the park’s majestic trees to illuminate an array of boards depicting striking photographs, vibrant illustrations, and thought-provoking texts. This was an exhibit with a particularly special mandate – to portray “socially-engaged” art.

With funding from the Sofia Municipality and in partnership with the Center for Non-Formal Education and Cultural Activity (ALOS), BCNL organized a contest through which young people were to engage with the topic of civil rights and freedoms via photography, visual arts, and writing. The competition had a particular focus on freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. The goal of this “Civil Alarm Clock” initiative was to develop the participants’ sense of civic culture and to stimulate their interest in human rights.

The award-winning works on display in the Crystal Garden evidenced a profound personal connection to a variety of themes, from environmental protection to “fake news.” In casting my eyes over the pieces, I was moved by the palpable commitment of these young artists to the defence of civil rights. They had mobilized art as a vessel to express their passion, their outrage, their determination.

This unique initiative has prompted me to reflect upon the importance of public outreach for civil society organizations. I am fascinated by BCNL’s mandate to foster connections with the general public in order to promote civil society and human rights on a societal level. Including everyday people in a dialogue about human rights seems perfectly in line with the grassroots, bottom-up orientation of civil society organizations. Moreover, I would like to believe that these kinds of efforts cultivate active citizenship and a sense of “community.” The exercise of thinking about what it means to have rights and what it is at stake when rights are trampled upon or lost undoubtedly makes us more sensitized to the world around us, with all of its injustice. If we can get people to “care” about human rights, then do we not have a greater chance of creating a more just and equal world? If people are awakened to the host of human rights issues around them, perhaps we can stem the tide of apathy towards the infringement of rights.

As I conduct my research on disability rights during my internship, I have come to see that there is a critical need for public outreach in this field. I have come to understand that securing legal reforms in the area of legal capacity and supported decision-making is only the first step towards ensuring that persons with disabilities enjoy the right to equality before the law in practice. Next, a broader cultural shift is required in terms of the ways in which persons with disabilities are viewed by their communities. Indeed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has called upon states to raise awareness about the abilities and rights of persons with disabilities, and to dismantle stereotypes and negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities.[1] The Special Rapporteur affirms that “persons with disabilities must not be seen as objects of care, but rather as rights holders in the same way as every member of society.”[2]

How exactly are states to engage with the public to raise awareness about disability rights and combat prejudice against persons with disabilities? This is certainly not a straightforward question. Nevertheless, civil society organizations may provide crucial assistance in carrying out public outreach initiatives, as they can lead sensitization efforts on a local scale. Firmly embedded in their communities, civil society organizations like BCNL are singularly well-positioned to broadly spread awareness of social issues and to build bridges between people and groups so that we may ultimately peel back stereotypes and secure equal rights on the ground.

[1] Catalina Devandas Aguilar, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities (theme: legal capacity reform and supported decision making)” (12 December 2017), online: <>  at para 79.

[2] Ibid.


The “Civil Alarm Clock” art exhibition in the Crystal Garden


Photo Credit: BCNL. Attendees at the exhibition enjoy a live violin performance.


Photo Credit: BCNL. Attendees at the exhibition hear from one of the contest’s prizewinners.


A photo from my hike in the magnificent Seven Rila Lakes


Tsarevets Fortress in the city of Veliko Tarnovo

“Why human rights law?”

By: Samantha Backman

“Why human rights law?” This question was posed to me by one of my supervisors in the early days of my internship at the Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law (BCNL). In the last several weeks, as I have immersed myself in the field of disability rights at BCNL, I have found myself pondering this question time and time again. I believe that it is a critical question for anyone working in the area of human rights law to reflect upon. Pausing to ask ourselves why we are doing something can undoubtedly make us more purposeful and focused in our efforts and help us connect with the broader significance of our work.

I was drawn to the International Human Rights Internship Program because I am a bit of an idealist. I am optimistic about the law’s potential to be harnessed to achieve social justice. Human rights law greatly appealed to me, as it seemed to be rooted in a pursuit for freedom, equality, and human dignity. The notion of striving to uphold such lofty ideals was extremely inspiring to me.

Over the past few weeks, however, I have learned that human rights law is about more than a quest for abstract principles. As I have been discussing with my mentors at BCNL, it is also about people.

At BCNL, I have been tasked with writing a report on recent legislative reforms that countries have undertaken in light of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which calls upon states to recognize the legal capacity of people with disabilities on an equal basis with others. Article 12 asks states to put into place supported decision-making mechanisms whereby persons with disabilities are authorised to make their own decisions with help from trusted individuals.

As I have been researching worldwide legislative reforms in the area of disability law, I have been struck by the role that civil society organizations have played in the painstaking process to enact change. Around the world, civil society organizations have given talks, organized pilot projects, led marches, lobbied governments, drafted legislation, and initiated strategic litigation to secure the full enjoyment of rights for persons with disabilities. These are fundamentally grassroots, bottom-up efforts. This is the work of parents of persons with disabilities who have been disheartened by their children’s disempowerment at the hands of society and the legal system, and who have come together and formed alliances. This is about lawyers who have advocated in the courts for people who have been stripped of their civil rights through placement under restrictive guardianship regimes. This is about civil society activists who have designed supported decision-making pilot projects so that persons with disabilities can gain control over their own life decisions. At its core, all of these endeavours are galvanized by the experiences of individual people. All of this energy is marshalled so that individual human beings can feel respected and have agency over their own lives.

My work in a civil society environment has shown me that the law has a human face. Human rights law is not simply about singing treaties and enshrining rights on paper. It is about advocacy. It is about ensuring the implementation of these rights on the ground. It is about holding governments to account. In these matters, civil society plays a critical role.

As I conduct my research in the context of my internship, I am amazed by the fact that in many countries, the work of disability rights activists has spanned many years. Civil society actors have persisted tirelessly with their efforts, even in the face of indifference or resistance from their governments. There is an astonishing will to continue to advocate for progress. It could very well be argued that these activists are pushing for freedom, equality, and human dignity. But they are critically focused on advocating for the people, for those individuals whose stories have moved and inspired them. Perhaps it is this personal connection that makes their fight for human rights so enduring. Extrapolating from this, if we aim to see human rights law on a “human scale,” perhaps this can help to remind us why this field is so worthwhile.

Photo credit: BCNL. BCNL helped to organize the Manifestation of Friendship, which took place in Sofia during Ability Day on May 18th, 2018. This was part of a national campaign for collecting signatures in support of a draft law in Bulgaria that would abolish guardianship and introduce supported decision-making (The National Citizen Initiative 7000).

NGO House: The BCNL headquarters is home to NGO House, an innovative co-working space for members of the local NGO community.

The Palace of Justice in Sofia

The bustling Vitosha Boulevard at the heart of the city centre

A tram in Sofia

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