5 Tips to Effectively Advocate for the Persecuted
You hear about a situation in the news, from a trusted organization, or through friend on Facebook or Twitter. Or maybe you work for an organization trying to figure out how best to help someone who has been targeted for their faith. An individual or group of individuals may have been imprisoned, released on bail, or forced into hiding. You want to “DO SOMETHING” to help but aren’t sure how best to go about it.
You’ve probably heard that unintended consequences are a major problem when trying to help in a given situation. This is certainly true in international advocacy. So here are a few tips for both individuals and organizations to consider before taking action in any specific situation.
Thoroughly Investigate the Case
There are few things more damaging to a cause or faith group’s interest than using inaccurate information for publicity and advocacy purposes. Do your homework before jumping on the bandwagon. Check multiple sources ensuring enough facts are available and can be corroborated. Collaborate with other organizations, news outlets, and government entities that are likely following the same case. A little digging will often change your perspective on a situation and the best way to proceed.
Here’s an example of why this matters. A few years ago, some influential Christian leaders and organizations began frantically publicizing the case of a Christian convert from Islam who was supposedly going to be executed imminently. Hearing a different story, I decided to call a government entity and verified that the story being circulated was completely inaccurate. While well meaning, this frantic and inaccurate publicity could have jeopardized quiet diplomatic efforts that were very near securing the individual’s release. It was a good reminder to always thoroughly vet a case before taking action, even when doing something as simple as re-Tweeting or posting a story on Facebook.
Assess Motives and Character of Relevant Players
Research and think about all the key players. There are many reasons an individual can be arrested and/or imprisoned. Unless you identify the key players and the motivation behind their actions, you cannot determine how best to help an individual. Sometimes the individual or group responsible is not immediately obvious. There are many possible scenarios including other faith groups or more established faith institutions, national government officials, local government officials, a wealthy politician or businessperson, a romantic or business dispute, and still more possibilities. An act against an individual may look like religious persecution at first glance, yet be motivated by something entirely unrelated. Sometimes members of minority faith groups are simply easy targets. Determining who is behind an arrest or violent act and what motivates them will lead you to the next step.
What are the Pressure Points?
Once you know who is behind religious persecution and what their motivation is, you need to determine what the pressure points are with those responsible for the victims. You might be asking what a “pressure point” is. Essentially you are asking, what would motivate the person or group responsible for this religious freedom violation to decide to relent? A pressure point could be negative publicity, making known the real motivation behind a false accusation, the threat of intervention in a case by a higher ranking official, losing face, or losing financial aid. Again, possible pressure points are numerous but you can almost always identify at least one. If you identify more, then you have more options with which to work.
Assess the Security situation
You want the advocacy action you take to actually help and not cause harm. Sometimes, an action meant to help causes inadvertent harm. For example, media, organizations, and individuals often want to publicize horrific cases of religious persecution. Sometimes that publicity simply hardens the hearts of government officials against releasing an individual from prison or changing a policy to help persecuted peoples because they do not want to lose face with their political party or co-religionists. In certain cases, publicity can be counterproductive. Also consider that publicity can draw the attention of religious zealots who may take matters into their own hands.
- When investigating security concerns, make sure to cover all angles surrounding a given case to be sure the action you are taking is in the best interest of those involved. If you are considering running a public advocacy campaign for an individual, ask the individual if possible, or his/her family if they even desire this action. In some instances, individuals prefer no public action due to the long term consequences it will have on them and their families.
- Check with the religious communities in the area in question. One family might ask for a certain action while the majority of a religious community may see it as harmful to their group as a whole. Make sure to consider the broader situation and interests of all those impacted by your actions. Often there are multiple minority faith groups suffering persecution in a given country or region, so coordinating and communicating with those other groups will widen your perspective and possibly create opportunities to partner.
Determine Advocacy Type
Once you have answered all the questions above, you are ready to determine how best to move forward. There are a myriad of combinations and options for a given situation so here are a few broad stroke categories from which to choose.
If you determined that publicity may cause more harm than good, you can always raise individual cases behind the scenes. (These are American examples but those in other countries will know who the counterparts are in their own country of residence). You can contact U.S. Representatives and Senators, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus, the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department (ask which staff members covers the country in question), the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (ask which staff members covers the country in question), UN Country mission diplomats in Geneva or in NYC from the country in question, or contact government officials directly in the country in which the incident has occurred. This is not an exhaustive list.
Please view our website for additional regional entities available to contact. Also check our website for links to file formal religious freedom violations with the United Nations. And if it becomes clear that efforts through quiet diplomacy will not suffice, you always have the option to escalate and pursue public media and campaigning options.
If you are an individual or organization without an advocacy arm, this is a great option. Media publicity is critical in any public effort to address religious freedom violations. Media Publicity can create enough pressure to result in prisoners being released, to stop harmful resolutions, bills, and policies from being passed or implemented, and creates accountability with any person involved in a religious freedom violation.
The beauty of this is that it can impact an average individual up to the most influential people. Organizations can issue press releases on specific religious freedom violations or issues. Individuals and organizations can also write OPEDS and pitch them to media outlets. Often OPED pieces move an issue into the spotlight leading to greater media coverage from other outlets. Individuals can write Letters to the Editor of any of their local publications. This is a great way for an individual to create awareness and action in their community. Both organizations and individuals can utilize social media such as Facebook and Twitter to create awareness and action on the specific case or issue.
If you have determined that public advocacy efforts are in the best interest of those involved in a specific case, then organize a public campaign. The purpose of a public campaign is to create enough pressure on an individual, group, or government to convince them to take your desired action. This could be anything from releasing a prisoner, dropping charges against an individual, to confirming a prisoner’s condition and location.
Public campaigns are most effective when multiple organizations and faith groups join efforts to publicize a single case or issue. Partnership increases the number of actions (typically phone calls, emails, letters, faxes, or signatures on a petition) to government officials. Of course there are variations on public campaigning, but targeting government officials is the most common. Partnering will also increase your public media presence. Combined media and public campaigning will be far more effective than pursuing one of these options alone.