The field of International Relations (IR) continues to be largely state-centric even though there is an increasing willingness in IR to examine the role of NGOs. Too often, however, the tendency to attribute decisive action to nation-states or the professional staff of IGOs overlooks or discounts the role of NGOs in the policy process. Human rights NGOs have had significant impact on the development of human rights standards over the past 50 years, but much of their work has been carried out behind the scenes and much of the decision-making behind closed doors. We hope that this site will increase appreciation for their contributions.
In the paragraphs below, we point out two somewhat different ways in which we hope the website will be of direct use to researchers interested in human rights advocacy and the development of international human rights policy.
As noted on the website homepage, this website extends a dialogue between researchers and practitioners that began with our 2010 conference, From Practice to Policy. We invite researchers to access the complete conference proceedings, Human Rights: From Practice to Policy. The complete proceedings include all the practitioner narratives contained on this website but also include the observations of scholars about those narratives as well as transcripts of interactive dialogues between practitioners and scholars on each of the substantive issues discussed. The full proceedings preserve the evolutionary character of these conversations so that researchers can appreciate the dynamic and interactive character of the conference. Presentations and subsequent conversations did not occur in a linear manner and at several points throughout the dialogue participants directly commented on each other’s reflections. Also included in the full proceedings, are the reflection of human rights scholars about the normative history of the human rights movement, their observations about themes among practitioner reflections and gaps and absences in the discussions. They asked practitioners probing questions about the conceptual content of human rights, the defining characteristics of the human rights movement and its collaborative relationships and the tools of human rights change.
Several themes emerged from the conversations between practitioners and scholars and we highlight some of those here. First, human rights organizations did not originally intend to involve themselves in the work of building normative standards or legal instruments. In many cases, they were drawn into that enterprise as an extension of their advocacy work as a way to make that work more effective.
Second, the development of human rights norms has not been a linear or uncontested process. For example, practitioners detailed the debates internal to the human rights movement about the applicability of human rights norms to a variety of non-state actors and the relevance of international humanitarian law to human rights work. Similarly, practitioners engaged in a lively debate about the elasticity of the term human rights and the boundaries of membership in the human rights movement – what types of evolution and expansion make sense and is there a danger that over-expansion could risk diluting the power of the human rights concept?
The report details these additional findings:
- Organizational dynamics are central to shaping decisions about the subject and nature of advocacy work;
- Contextual factors impact the agendas of human rights organizations;
- Human rights practitioners have varying understandings of “success” and whether the movement should measure its efforts or its effects with regard to human rights; and
- Human rights research remains victim-centered and dependent on victim and survivor testimony but it has evolved over time to incorporate new tools of corroboration, from documentary evidence to forensic science.
We hope that researchers will enjoy and grapple seriously with the rich collective of perspectives and experiences contained in this website and within the broader conference report. A summary of observations from the conference can be found in the introductory chapter of the proceedings, excerpted here.
In addition to the conference report and insights recorded in the exchanges between practitioners and scholars, the Resources section of individual topics pages resources section may be useful to researchers. We have included a wide array of policy documents that speak directly to the issue of standard setting, and we invited conference participants to recommend source material. Many of these documents will be familiar, but some of the items included in the resource lists may not be well known even to researchers who have been working on more theoretical understandings of human rights problems. Moreover, some of the examples (such as CARE’s use of the Human Rights Based Approach) may not be familiar.
We will be updating the resource section of the topics pages periodically, and we invite researchers to call our our attention to resources we may have overlooked by contacting us.