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Demo in Irland gegen Abschaffung der Abtreibung

amnesty international

Don’t fight fear with fear, fight fear with hope.

The essence of human rights advocacy is to draw attention to the plight of people whose rights are not being respected. Campaigns often highlight human suffering in many different contexts. But are they actually getting the message wrong? An interview with Thomas Coombes from Amnesty International.

By Joanna Bostock

Are human rights activists focussing too much on suffering and sabotaging their own aim of encouraging empathy by simply trying to raise awareness? Thomas Coombes from Amnesty International is a proponent of „hope-based communication“.

Can you explain why your family history is important for your approach to human rights activism?

I work in human rights because of the story of my grandmother, a story that could be happening today and which shaped the way I see the world. My grandmother’s name was Sara and she was one of the only people in her family to survive the Holocaust. They were in Lyon and one day the Gestapo came for them but escaped through the back door and a smuggler took them to the border with Switzerland, where they came to a barbed wire fence. My grandfather was ready to give up and go back but my grandmother was pregnant and refused to give up. So she climbed over the fence although her arms were bleeding, and got to the other side. The Swiss decided not to deport the family of a pregnant woman, and they spent the war in Switzerland.

To me that story has always been a source of anger, sadness and despair, but lately as I take on new ways of communicating and tell my colleagues we have to communicate positively, I had an epiphany while reading a book called “Evidence for Hope” by Kathryn Sikkink, a Yale academic. She was presenting evidence to show that the human rights movement is actually succeeding in getting things done, and quoted a colleague of mine who works in Egypt and says “we have no hope in Egypt”. Suddenly I had this click in my head and I thought, well, that’s how it felt in 1942 – can you imagine a darker moment? That’s when I realised: in the darkest moment, that’s when that one little light shines brightest, and the darker things are the more people need that hope, and suddenly I was able to make that shift myself and see the story of my grandmother not as one of despair because she lost all her family, but one of hope because she survived and I am here today.

Thomas Coombes at the EU Fundamental Rights Agency Forum in Vienna

amnesty international

What’s going wrong with the human rights work that’s being done at the moment?

The reason we need hope is both to inspire people to join us but also to convince decision makers to change. Where I see us going wrong at the moment is with the instinct to bring to light suffering. New findings from neuroscience are changing our perspective on how we do our work, studies show that people adapt to bad situations. One day they might see something as a really terrible development, but they next day they’ll have gotten used to it.

What I’m afraid of is that we are constantly seeking to shock our audiences because we feel that if we raise awareness about a problem, then people are going to act on it. But the danger is that people start to see crisis and suffering as inevitable, because we’re not showing an alternative version of how things could be. It’s like we’re inoculating them to the suffering and they come to accept it. What we need to do is start to inspire people and show them how things can change, but also we have to show decision makers our solutions are better than the alternative.

When you say “people”, who are we talking about? Some people are upset by what they see, others are worried about their own situation, and this is part of the political divide we see at the moment...

What’s encouraging from a human rights perspective of looking at neuroscience is that while different cultures, environments or economic situations might determine how people think, we all have the same functions happening in our brain. When we talk about fear or danger or threats we trigger the lower part of the brain, which is where our survival instincts live. And study after study is showing that when you trigger fear, when you talk about threats or problems, you push them to support more conservative policies, or policies that just defend their group. If you can trigger comfort or happiness, more positive emotions, you trigger the part of the brain where empathy, compassion and rational thought reside.

Demo in Irland gegen Abschaffung der Abtreibung

amnesty international

Thomas Coombes at the EU Fundamental Rights Agency Forum in Vienna

When you talk about the “general public” it will obviously change from issue to issue but usually in the human rights movement we try to mobilise as much of the general public as possible to take action. Ireland is a great example: this year we saw a historic referendum where laws on abortion changed. When Amnesty International started working on that, even two or three years ago we thought that wasn’t possible, but then women started telling their stories and two thirds of the population voted for change. I think the most important thing that happened there was that we gave people something positive to engage in. I think people came out and voted for a vision of a future more modern, compassionate Ireland.

Trying to get across the human rights message by highlighting the suffering can make people more resistant to empathy – can you explain how that works?

There’s a very good example of how we can inadvertently reinforce stereotypes or a sense of hopelessness in our audience. A lot of people in the human rights world often use the slogan “not a criminal” or “not a crime”, refugees are not criminals, and journalism is not a crime. By putting the word “crime” in the same sentence as the concept we’re creating a connection in the minds of our audience, and we’re also inviting a debate: are journalists criminals or not? Colleagues want to let people know about this shocking situation that journalists are being treated like criminals. They think that just raising awareness will be enough, but what we’re not doing is trying to tell people that journalist are important for our society, that we should take in refugees and give them a chance. So the danger is talking about what we’re against rather than what we’re for.

This also happens with the images: when the United States puts the children of migrants in cages and we show that picture we may inadvertently be reinforcing the image that certain politicians want to get across – the idea that they’re animals, sub-human. So we have to be very careful how we portray people. At Amnesty International we’re asking ourselves whether we can show the people who are suffering as heroes rather than victims, people who won’t give up, like my grandmother. Colleagues in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are finding musicians, businessmen, and essentially their message is: behind every person there is a story. While we still have to expose that suffering, we need to get better at telling those stories.

You have said that it’s also important to make it clear that human rights are for everyone, not just the people whose plight you’re trying to highlight…

Linguists have analysed how human rights activists speak and we often talk about human rights as individual rights that protect us and say that the government must protect our rights. But actually people who are working for human rights are working for a better world, a better community. Focussing on the people who are suffering most right now, gives the impression that human rights is just about those people. We need ask how we put a picture into people’s minds of the world we want to live in. I think that’s something we’ve lost sight of with refugees and migrants being so high on the agenda. Not many people are standing up and saying “actually, I’d like to live in a world with diversity, I want to see different people on my street, multiculturalism is actually a good thing and I’m quite happy with it. So talking about our vision for the world is quite important.

How does that apply to a concrete example, let’s say Chemnitz, where ordinary citizens were criticised for protesting against refugees and migrants alongside right-wing extremists, while experts explained that these citizens’ experiences since reunification had left them feeling neglected and very insecure?

Amnesty International has been fortunate to work with some really inspiring people in the United States, cause communicators who have a “heart-wired” approach which tries to understand the emotions that drive people to do that. Now whenever I do a workshop I start by asking people to think of their audience and their fears and worries, their hopes and aspirations. I think one thing that people leave out when they talk about migration is that ten years ago we had this financial crisis and it feels like those impacts are not taken into account.

Rechte Kundgebung, Polizei und Gegendemonstranten in CHemnitz


Nothing makes me sadder than seeing a rise again of scapegoating by politicians of different groups and people buying into that. But I really believe we can’t give up on people when we see they have that fear and that worry that some politicians can trigger, because every human being also has that upper part of the brain where empathy resides. It’s about being able to tell the stories which trigger that part of the brain. I think a lot of our work in human rights needs to go to this kind of audience and show them stories that will make them relate to the kind of people we’re trying to help.

I think the people who are selling fear and hate right now want to see a divided society because that’s the only way they get a majority. What the human rights movement needs to do is unite people because our cause is common humanity. And so when you’re faced with divisive rhetoric, rather than fight back, don’t fight fear with fear, fight fear with hope: bring forward a uniting message that will undercut them.

Policy makers have to come up with practical measures if you’re dealing with, for example large numbers of refugees and migrants arriving. So a critic might say “it’s all well and good to put forward this argument, but how does that help the politicians who have to actually make policy?”

What the human rights movement needs to get better at is showing how its solutions will work. Europe hasn’t actually taken in that many refugees compared to countries around the world who have taken many more, proportionately to their population. And what we need is a little bit more of the “wir schaffen das” spirit. There are so many people in Europe and around the world who want to take care of people because it’s the right thing to do. You saw people, even in Hungary, going to roadsides handing out water; we’ve seen crowds in railway stations welcoming people. It goes back to the brain, again. We all have this sense of ourselves as good people. The question is, are we going to threaten our people to say “you have to defend human rights because otherwise, one day, your rights might be taken away”, or are we going to say, “Here’s an opportunity to be a good person and do the right thing".

I see increasingly the common sense of humanity coming up in debates again. Angela Merkel said it, you see it in Texas where they separated children from their mothers. So it’s about being able to say “Here is a solution, here’s how it would work, here’s what the world would look like if you put that solution in place”, and that is something that was really missing with the refugee crisis. Some people tried to do it, but not enough, and if you can have that spirit of “let’s roll up our sleeves, and get this done .... we built a European Union, we built a single market, we sent a man to the moon, we can take in less than 1% of our population and give them a chance to join our community and make it better”.

Is all this related to what’s known as “solutions journalism?”

It’s very much related to solutions journalism. At Amnesty our job has been, for a very long time, to bring to light horrible abuses, and obviously “if it bleeds, it leads” and gets a lot of media coverage. But we also see that we need to tell some different stories, so we have to show refugees not just as people fleeing, but also as people like my grandmother Sarah, setting up a business and improving the community. If we show people the change we want to see happen, it’s suddenly becomes a lot more comfortable, which is why I think people who live in communities with less refugees actually tend to be the ones who are most afraid of them.

But I do see a change happening in the way that the media works. People are a bit exhausted by stories of crisis and disaster, and there is definitely a market out there for hopeful stories, positive stories, stores that give you a sense that there is that common humanity, that a better world is possible. So we’re increasingly trying to tell stories of change. There may be a crisis, but within that, can we find a story of hope? So, for example, in Norway we’ve been telling the story of a group of students who formed a campaign to prevent one of their fellow classmates being deported to Afghanistan, and actually the media were very interested in that. So I think the media know that people are looking for these different stories; disgust and anger tend to be shared a lot on social media, but so do surprise and joy. So, it’s hard, but we’re trying to find those stories of hope and joy in our human rights work, not because it feels good, but because we know it’s so important to show people that change is possible.