There is an observed shrinking civic space for human rights defenders across the globe. But we lack systematic analyses of how human rights organizations work under politically precarious conditions. This project provides new actionable knowledge on how human rights activists strategically respond to evolving political conditions and, the subsequent impact of those responses on policymakers and the public. An international research team will provide innovative theoretical insights on 1) whether and how different types of human rights organizations (civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, labor/land rights) alter their advocacy strategies (legislative, juridical, protest) as civic space closes or opens, and 2) the impact of these activist strategies on support for different types of rights by policymakers and the public at large. Through a multimethod approach, the project examines Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe where the parameters of civic space have oscillated over the past decade - and their future remains in doubt.
The RightAct project aims to advance democratic theorizing and human rights empiricism by examining, first, how activists strategically respond to evolving political conditions and, second, assessing the subsequent impact of those responses on policymakers and the public. Over the past decade, rights activists have had to navigate an increasingly complex political landscape under governments claiming to adhere to electoral democracy and the rule of law while simultaneously enacting autocratic measures aimed at curtailing fundamental freedoms. In this context, the RightAct project will study the strategic adaptations that activists make as they seek to defend threatened rights or expand new rights. The project examines four interlocking questions: (1) How do human rights organizations alter their advocacy strategies (i.e., legislative, juridical, protest) in response to shifting political conditions? (2) How do human rights organizations alter the rhetorical strategies used to make rights-based claims as political conditions evolve? (3) Are certain advocacy or rhetorical strategies more likely to generate public support? (4) Are policymakers more receptive to particular advocacy and rhetorical strategies? These questions are pursued through a multi-method research design that systematically compares the strategies of rights activists operating across a range of domains, namely, traditional civil liberties such as speech and assembly; gender and sexuality rights; and labor and land rights. The research design specifically considers how domestic institutions (e.g., common law vs. civil code) and international epistemic communities (e.g., Commonwealth vs. Francophonie) constitute distinct opportunity structures that condition activists’ strategic choices in countries where the parameters of civic space have oscillated over the past decade -- and its future remains in doubt (Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe).