Why human rights activists need to be better at marketing

Not everyone is convinced by the need for strong human rights legislation


Picture a fancy logo and atmospheric lighting across a grand and beautiful landscape (as in one of the car adverts regularly driving across our screens) and the following words read to the viewer:

“International human rights laws seek to protect all humans across the globe. Human rights laws in the UK seek to protect, and often succeed in protecting, British people. The UK is a leader in human rights and wins the vast majority of cases in European courts. In the UK, human rights have helped make it illegal to hit children and impose greater obligations on councils to protect children from neglect. They have resulted in the military having to overhaul its justice system to ensure rape is properly investigated.

“They have put the spotlight on police to ensure they investigate rape properly and protect people in custody and treat them with dignity. Human rights in the UK allow us to enforce better health care – services will be challenged if they don’t protect our families and friends when they are ill and need treatment. Human rights help us stop the scourge of modern slavery happening even within the UK. Human rights allows the UK to influence other nations – to stand as an international role model for how other countries should be treating their people. We can look other leaders in the eye and tell them that they too should ensure no one is tortured, that they hold fair trials and ensure equality for all people.”

Why is this vision needed? To those who embrace human rights, it can be hard to accept a rather disappointing reality. The reality is that a large number of the public are less convinced.

A series of glowing endorsements is therefore urgently required to ensure human rights is given the promotion it warrants, alongside an abandonment of party politics that can serve to overshadow these vitally important messages.

As a principle that can transcend corporate sales, ‘human rights’ activists could learn from major brands to radically improve the reputation of their own cause. 

Many are rightly concerned with the Conservative government’s proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 with a new Bill of Rights. We don’t yet know what exactly the government proposes to do: perhaps make it harder to bring certain types of human rights claims; seek to distance the UK from Europe; or lessen the human rights obligations on Britain’s military acting abroad.

Important to realise though is that whatever this new Bill does, if indeed it comes into existence at all, the issue of human rights still has a big problem in the UK. 

Some may be forgiven for thinking that if we protect the Human Rights Act that’s job done. Wrong. 

First, the fact we need the Human Rights Act so much is precisely because injustices happen all of the time, meaning this vital legal tool is needed to enforce fairness, equality and justice. 

Secondly, and linked to the first, the big problem that will remain is that the ‘brand’ of human rights needs some serious public relations assistance. In turn, the dream and hope is that this will help us promote human rights throughout society to prevent injustice happening in the first place. Let me explain a little further.

Although human rights law in the UK strongly supports causes that nearly all of us would agree on, the relevant laws have a reputation problem. From knocking on hundreds of doors seeking the political views of the public, I have been taken aback by the generalised negativity towards human rights.

Of course, you don’t really need me to tell you this; certain newspapers take great joy in proliferating falsities about human rights, which are greeted by large sales figures. This literary trowel of junk and misrepresentation leads to a cycle of strong derision of human rights. 

At this point you might ask me to tell you what those people I have spoken to actually say about human rights. Alternatively maybe you would like me to reiterate some of the tales told by certain media outlets. Well, I’m not going to, not directly at least.

It is often one of the first lessons taught to people learning advocacy – don’t repeat your opponents’ arguments as it helps cement them in the minds of those listening to the debate. Instead choose to frame your argument in a positive way that ensures only the truth is remembered by your audience and not one-line myths.

I find this inherently uncomfortable because I yearn to explain in clearly argued terms why certain ideas are held without any basis whatsoever.

However, I am prepared to put my argumentative nature to one side. Given the brevity of my opportunity to convince people otherwise, I will embrace the advocacy principle and repeat only the positive case for human rights. I don’t believe this strategy lacks integrity because I believe the myths do not merit airtime.

Trying to sell this message got me thinking about successful commercial brands we all know about. While it is true that Marmite has been impressively iconic for its self deprecating message of how one either loves it or ‘hates’ it, most brands perpetuate an unrelentingly positive image over many years so that the public trust it, rely on it and remember the good things. 

Big clothing brands breed stories of reliability. Drinks brands float the narrative of consistency and good taste. Major sports brands ooze victory. Human rights activists can learn from this. Let us spread this positive message.

An ‘advert’ to sell this wonderful product – well, more of a fundamental philosophy of humanity really – is needed more than ever. Again, picture a fancy logo and atmospheric lighting and so on; you get the idea.

All we need to do now is repeat this human rights advert hundreds of times like the big companies do, and let us see the growth of a brand that the public embrace, trust and live by.

Tom McNeil is the director of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights’ ECHR/HRA Campaign

5 Responses to “Why human rights activists need to be better at marketing”

  1. TheLyniezian

    It’s one thing to talk about wanting to better “market” the concept of “human rights” but when we get down to the nitty-gritty that’s probably not even the real issue. I dare say, if pressed, that most people (despite the talk) believe in some sort of human rights and value them. The question is, what human rights are we talking about? There seems to be the impression by some that human rights are axiomatic and a force of nature, standing above everything else, instead of what they are- human constructs designed to produce a fairer, more moral and generally better society. As human constructs, they are subject to the views of human beings.

    If you don’t believe me, you might note that many Americans think it their inviolable human right to own and carry firearms of many if not any type, backed up, they suppose, by the Second Amendment to their Constitution. In this country, we would take a different view, supposing that the right to bear arms is not as great as the right of others not to be killed by them. Same thing with the right to free speech, which is much more extensive than over here. In fact, some have pointed out that the view of human rights there is different from the view commonly expressed in Europe, where rights are subject to appropriate legal constraints and not (as over there) the other way round.

    This attempt at trying to uphold at all costs the Human Rights Act 1998 and Britain’s involvement in the the ECHR is, in this sense, somewhat wrongheaded. It is noted that the Government is not planning on removing human rights from British law but replacing the 1998 Act, enshrining the ECHR, with a uniquely British Bill of Rights which is not some sort of compromise with other European countries and subjecct to international courts above the sovereignty of this country. Sure, Britain was largely involved in its creation but times have moved on, and the rulings of the European Court do not match what seems right to the majority of British people.

    Of course, the flipside of this is that if we do not have some agreed standard of human rights which transcends the whims of whoever is in power (or even fleeting public opinion) then abuses could happen. It is a question of ensuring the appropriate checks and balances are in place and nothing good is lost. But, do we need the current paradigm?

  2. Tom McNeil

    The key is making sure that the public has a full grasp of just how many great things, across the spectrum of rights, that the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights have done; including in recent times. The rhetoric peddled by some regarding the more controversial exceptions to the rule, gives human rights an image they do not deserve. For those who believe in our current legal framework for human rights, they should focus on the many examples of UK and European human rights law having been a great success.

  3. TheLyniezian

    Those who wish to defend the current legal framework for human rights would do well to start by not phrasing their arguments or otherwise insinuating that any criticism of the same is somehow an attack of the very concept of human rights. Otherwise, is it any wonder if some of the more mentally lazy critics might start to take a similarly all-or-nothing approach to human rights?

    Talking about the positive impacts of the HRA and the ECHR might be important in terms of achieving this end, but that case can only go so far. Describing the merits of one thing is no argument against replacing it with something that does the same job better.

    If these criticisms are ever an attack on human rights themselves, it is in my experience due to the fact that for many they are rooted in xenophobia- be it against pan-European institutions based aborad, or against immigrants and ethnic minorities. Human rights, I suppose, assumes that those rights apply to all humans, not nationals residing in their own country. (However, just because some making these articles are bigots, doesn’t mean we all are.)

  4. Tom McNeil

    There is no one right answer in considering how to convince people of one way or the other and no method will work with everyone, because people are complex and have different requirements and interests when listening to a debate. My personal belief, and it is in part based on my experience standing for parliament and having hundreds of conversations on the doorstep about this issue, that human rights activists should focus on the positives at the moment because they do not in my view get enough attention. People lead busy lives and don’t always want an academic debate. Fair enough. With a small window of opportunity I think we need to sell the positives. I can see you would certainly appreciate a different probably more detailed discussion approach.

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