International human rights policy takes the shape of declarations, agreements, “outcome documents” and legally binding treaties. How are such normative standards developed, and what is the role of human rights advocacy groups in the process?
There is no simple answer to this question. By contrast to national-level processes that may be constitutionally ordained (and constrained), international policy-making does not follow any clearly mandated process. Normative standards can emerge from any number of international processes and institutions. Typically they are negotiated under the auspices of the UN or a regional organization (such as the Organization of American States), but some normative agreements have been concluded in a meeting convened on an ad hoc basis. (The meeting to negotiate the Landmine Convention, for example, was convened by Canada, outside of UN auspices.) Historically, though, most policy documents directly related to international human rights policy have worked their way through processes that centrally involve the UN Human Rights Commission or its successor, the UN Human Rights Council.
The international policy process has many variations, but two aspects are clear and consistent. First, in the strictest and most direct sense, nation states are the gatekeepers and architects of international policy. They are the “principals” of international human rights policy-making. By virtue of their sovereignty, nation states are empowered to negotiate, endorse, ratify and implement international normative standards. For this reason, human rights organizations focus their advocacy efforts about normative human rights issues on national governments and the diplomats that represent them in international bodies.
Secondly, there is a process, and a natural sequence, for the consideration of international human rights policy issues. In a first phase of the process, policy issues claim a place on the international agenda – i.e., an issue is drawn to the attention of international policy makers through media attention, direct lobbying, buzz in the corridors, or the introduction of a formal resolution. In a second phase, options for addressing the issue are considered, debated, negotiated, and adopted (or not). This phase is often a very lengthy one, sometimes extending over many years, even decades. And finally, there is an implementation phase, involving allocation of resources, active monitoring, and possibly adjudicating. The process is iterative, of course: deficiencies or difficulties that become apparent in the implementation phase frequently generate new concerns, effectively restarting the cycle.
Human rights organizations and their NGO allies play a crucial role in all the phases of this process. As explored in this section of the website, they serve as interest groups in the international political process. They have lobbied for attention to new issues; they have helped craft policy solutions; and they have pushed for implementation and accountability after decisions have been made and policy instruments adopted. They have also been instrumental in building up the international institutions through which human rights policies have been articulated and pursued.
The international policy process and the role of human rights NGOs are elaborated in this section of the website.