Activism tops '12 Angry Men' when it comes to winning rights - experts

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 15 November 2018 18:39 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A rainbow colored flag is seen as people wait to win a coveted seat in the gallery to watch arguments in same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodgesis outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. on April 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Image Caption and Rights Information

Be it an end to slavery in Britain or legalising gay sex in India, key court decisions have proved pivotal in advancing human rights through the centuries

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Nov 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Courtroom dramas like "12 Angry Men" make for great movies but landmark legal cases are not a simple route to victory in the real world, according to human rights experts.

Instead, strong grassroots campaigning, an active social media strategy, along with a cluster of smaller court wins, are more effective in bolstering rights and winning breakthroughs, stage by painstaking stage, they said.

"Human rights litigation cannot substitute for other strategies like documentation, out-of-court advocacy or social mobilisation," James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, a programme supporting civil society groups, said in a statement.

Goldston said taking a government to court can be a highly effective tool, but that it was more complex than a simple win or loss, and might not succeed on its own.

But he added: "When undertaken with care, litigation can be a powerful tool for social change."

The court route is increasingly popular with activists around the globe seeking to pressure governments into change.

Be it an end to slavery in Britain or legalising gay sex in India, key court decisions have proved pivotal in advancing human rights through the centuries.

In the United States, a 1954 case against segregation in schools marked a major step in the civil rights movement while 1973's Roe v. Wade case established a woman's right to abortion.

The European Court of Human Rights received more than 53,000 applications in 2016 alone while the African Court of Human and Peoples' Rights saw a tenfold rise in cases filed in 2015, noted researchers.

They covered issues from torture and degrading treatment to freedom of expression.

But litigation should not be seen as a "panacea", said the OSJI report, drawing on research of human rights campaigns in 11 countries, including Brazil, Greece and South Africa.

They found legal challenges were most effective if leveraged within a broader campaign.

Even a successful ruling could backfire, they said, as judgments are often open to interpretation and might provoke a backlash, especially when the issue is controversial and faces a well-organised opposition.

Several smaller cases can also be more effective than one major ruling, as each can build on the last to help raise awareness among both the judiciary and the wider public.

Lucy Claridge, who advises rights campaign group Amnesty International on strategic litigation, agreed that winning over the public was just as important as legal victories.

"Strategic litigation needs to be seen as one part of a wider process: it cannot be conducted in a silo," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Litigation needs to be accompanied by carefully developed and coordinated campaign, advocacy and media output as well as community outreach, in order to raise awareness and galvanise support – before, during and after."

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.