How the #MeToo Campaign Influenced Global Diplomatic Tactics

When actress and producer Alyssa Milano and activist Tarana Burke started to invite women to tell their stories about sexual harassment under the hashtag #metoo on Twitter, they did not anticipate that it would become one of the most influential public campaigns ever. Although Burke used the word as early as 2006, it was not until October 2017 when the hashtag went viral on social media platforms. Until now, millions of stories were told from women in more than 85 different countries. What is interesting is that previous to #metoo, there have been a number of national campaigns crying out about similar issues (Chile, Nigeria, Iran, India to name a few). However the #metoo campaign was more successful as it managed to make a real global impact.

The #metoo movement is a good example of how civil society has changed from being national towards becoming a global public. There was no formal structure or organised strategy, but rather a decentralised spread of posts with local and international alternatives through interpersonal networks, which was then picked up by the media. Championed by high-profile individuals, the movement rapidly reached the political sphere in a wide range of countries. For instance, the ME TOO Congress Act in the United States established obligatory sexual harassment prevention training for members of Congress and their staff and further implemented measures aimed at facilitating reporting and protection of victims. In December 2018, a new bill was passed under which congressional representatives will be held personally liable for financial settlements agreed with complainants and which avoids officials resigning amid a scandal without being held accountable. As there is still much room for improvements (including on the bill itself), more initiatives were announced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who herself shared her own story of sexual assault.

The campaign is a great example for two things. First, it shows how global public support can provide lawmakers with necessary support to put these issues on the agenda and push through new laws that perhaps otherwise would have had little chances of passing through (male-dominated) institutions. Second, it shows how a global public is able to capture lawmakers and diplomats at their own different identities, thereby making the personal political and the political personal. The same applies to diplomacy, illustrated by the 220 serving and former US diplomats, who have openly subscribed to the #metoo movement. Even China, which is not considered a champion of human rights in general to say the least, has felt the shockwaves of the movement. Although real changes will most likely not happen, activists achieved a major symbolic win when the government announced it was adding a provision on sexual harassment to the new civil code draft.

The movement also influenced the international sphere. Guy Ryder, the Director-General for the International Labour Organisation has even spoken out on plans for a new convention to set benchmarks regarding workplace harassment, stating that “the #Metoo campaign” […]  adds force to this process”. #Metoo also inspired several international discussions at the United Nations, as well as the most recent resolution on the “Intensification of efforts to prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls: sexual harassment” (A/C.3/73/L.21/Rev.1). The resolution was the first time ever containing explicit language on battling sexual harassment and was unanimously adopted. Even more noteworthy, US amendments aimed at weakening the language of the resolution where described by French Ambassador Francois Delattre as “hostile”.

On the other side, the #PayMeToo campaign in the UK shows how the momentum of a singular issue can be used to raise awareness within politics and society of broader concerns, in this case being the gender pay gap. This underlines that a strong global public is something dynamic and liquid that can help to draw international attention, transfer pressure and be embedded into thematic and national concerns.

#Metoo is an example of how international diplomacy is changing. Traditionally, international and governmental organisations interact with each other, based on interests defined within these institutions. Now, governments can act on behalf of and motivated by a popular movement without any formal structure or official spokesperson. However, only a globally acting public was able to push through and provide the necessary support for such a revolutionary resolution. To go even further, the comment made by Delattre illustrates that even conflicts could be created between governments due to global public campaigns. On the other hand, a global public also provides invaluable tools for the international community to exert pressure on repressive regimes.

Public outcries such as #metoo reflect the intimate reality of millions of citizens. Whilst we need to stop and ask ourselves: Why did #metoo become viral and powerful only after a white woman in the US talked about the issue? Here, it becomes evident that there are still significant difference as to who can actually create and promote this global public, as well as leveraging tangible results from it. Nonetheless, accounts of all of these realities can shine a light on issues that are disregarded through official and dominant channels. Diplomats and governments ignoring these messages run not only the threat of further alienating diplomacy and international politics from their own constituencies, but also retroceding on the international scene.

In an increasingly interconnected world with interdependent and complex challenges, global public campaigns can be the channel through which civil society can effectively voice concerns that affect us all - as women, as workers, as humans. The #metoo campaign proves that in spite of the difference and obstacles, individuals and civil societies can reach a global ‘platform’ to achieve results than change the world for all of us.