Governments and politicians often raise righteous rhetoric in support of the concept of human rights, yet too often they behave very differently when defending rights that are in conflict with political power, security issues and other national interests. Too often, definitions of “universally recognized rights” become absurdly elastic and those who defend human rights are vilified or attacked outright.

Those of us who believe that human rights have an important place in public policy are frequently painted as wild-eyed idealists. In other instances, rights activists are labeled as unpatriotic or as threats to national security. When defending human rights across borders, they are too often charged with attempting to interfere with the “internal matters” of sovereign states. The reality of any of these terms is that they are used as a weapon to disarm and disempower active citizenship—whether it is inside, or beyond national borders.

But if human rights are universal and universally recognized, shouldn’t it follow that citizens everywhere have the right to raise their voices when rights anywhere are ignored, threatened or worse? Global citizens—people who view aspects of citizenship as going beyond national boundaries—would certainly answer that question in the affirmative. If human rights are our rights it would be absurd to not act in their defense—“nothing about us, without us,” as the phrase goes.

Commitment to human rights and respect for international humanitarian law have motivated global citizen action on issues ranging from the banning of landmines and cluster bombs to support for the establishment of the International Criminal Court to actions and campaigns against murderous regimes such as those in Burma and Sudan, among other issues. In fact, many view the successful work of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) as a watershed event in global citizen diplomacy.

Founded in 1992, the ICBL grew from a handful of non-governmental organizations to a global coalition that successfully brought humanitarian concerns into an arms control debate.  Its groundbreaking strategy raised a global humanitarian issue from obscurity to global prominence and action that resulted in the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. The ICBL’s use of emerging technologies has also been described as transformative in terms of mass civil society organizing around a cause.

As the founding coordinator of that effort, I can say with absolute certainty that we were not thinking of new definitions of “public diplomacy” or “citizen diplomats” when we decided to try to create a global political movement consisting of non-governmental organizations to pressure governments to ban antipersonnel landmines. We did not have grand visions of cutting-edge organizing or breakthroughs in social theory. We saw faxes and e-mail and the web as tools for our work—as efficient ways to join people together in common cause to bring about much needed change.

What we had recognized in deciding to launch the ICBL was that antipersonnel landmines were killing and maiming civilians long after the end of conflicts, and that few—either the militaries who used the weapons or the governments left with the problem after the wars—were accepting responsibility for cleaning up the mess.   And those who were paying the price were generally the poorest of the poor—women, children and men with little option other than trying to carry on with life in mine-infested areas.

Since no one was addressing the problem, we believed that we had the right and responsibility to lobby governments and militaries for change. And that is exactly what we did. In developing a successful partnership with governments and international agencies we broke the mold in negotiating an international treaty. The ICBL became part of what has been described as a “new superpower.”  Many lauded the achievement, but many others wanted to see that genie put right back into the bottle.

If governments often have not been particularly happy when pressed to protect the rights of individuals, they have been perhaps even more disturbed by the successes of global social movements and their future potential. Globalization of corporate power and influence is one thing, but the globalization of ideas and action by civil society—by citizen diplomats—is quite another.

Diplomacy, public or otherwise, has been the purview of states for as long as they have existed. Some decry the lack of accountability of people taking it upon themselves to act to expose gross violations of human rights or to call for bans of indiscriminate weapons or other such actions.  Others argue just as strongly that when governments, their diplomats, and the international community do not assume their responsibility to protect people from rights violations, or from weapons that violate humanitarian law, it is up to the rest of us to take action.

The difference between public diplomacy— as in the examples offered by the ICBL or the Cluster Munition Coalition, and traditional diplomacy— taking place behind closed doors, offers a sea change in action and expectation.   In its work to ban landmines, the ICBL, for example, largely set the agenda. Campaign members also provided much needed expertise, which governments grudgingly came to accept.  Its involvement in the negotiations of the Mine Ban Treaty ensured transparency. The creation of the Landmine Monitor system has resulted in high levels of government accountability and transparency in the implementation of and compliance with the Treaty.

I would argue that all of these characteristics exemplify the “new” public diplomacy, whether it is civil society acting to defend human rights in Darfur or Burma or supporting the work of the International Criminal Court or the renewed efforts to abolish nuclear weapons. Such diplomacy demands the active involvement of civil society to protect and promote human rights.  Passive citizenship, which repeatedly allows governments to get by with giving lip service to human rights and humanitarian law, has proven time and time again to be an ineffective guardian of rights.  If human rights truly are about us, public diplomacy must actively involve citizens everywhere in their defense.

Professor Jody Williams received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. In 2006, she co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five other women Peace Laureates to defend the rights of women around the world; she serves as its Chair. The recipient of 15 honorary degrees, among other recognitions, in 2004, Forbes Magazine named her one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. She has written articles for magazines and newspapers around the world, contributed to countless books, and co-authored a book on the landmine crisis. Her most recent books are Banning Landmines: Disarmament, Citizen Diplomacy and Human Security, released in 2008, and Ingredients for Peace, released in 2010.