Rights on the Rise: International Mobilization for New Human Rights

16 Pages Posted: 17 May 2006

Date Written: September 4, 2005


In recent years, aggrieved groups around the world have portrayed their problems as human rights issues. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is expansive, for most of its history civil and political rights have garnered the bulk of resources. Yet today groups such as the disabled, gays and lesbians, Third World slumdwellers, South Asian Dalits (Untouchables), AIDS patients, and victims of corporate malfeasance - all seek to establish rights to protect their groups. In many cases, their efforts have met resistance from governments and corporations. Even apparent allies among human rights NGOs have voiced misgivings, arguing that proliferation of new rights vitiates core concerns.

My paper proposes a framework for understanding the emergence of new rights, those omitted from or given little prominence in the UDHR. The process involves three phases: First, groups frame long-felt grievances as rights. Why and how they do so has received little scholarly attention. Second, they seek to place their claims on the international agenda, chiefly by convincing gatekeepers in major human rights NGOs to endorse new norms. This seldom-examined stage is crucial since a handful of NGOs exercise great power in certifying rights. Third, assuming key NGOs adopt a norm, they promote it in international arenas where they face strong opposition from states and non-state actors espousing contrary norms.

To make this argument, I analyze the recent successes, failures, and strategies of Dalits and the physically disabled as they seek new rights internationally. My analysis challenges dominant theories of transnational relations and social movements. In contrast to Keck and Sikkink's concept of cohesive transnational advocacy networks, I distinguish within networks between established NGO gatekeepers and new rights claimants. I find that NGOs' organizational interests make them less receptive than often assumed, forcing claimants to adapt themselves to NGO predispositions. Moreover, unlike constructivists, I argue that logics of appropriateness and argument cannot explain norm acceptance. Bearers of new norms face opposition from transnational counter-movements that champion equally appropriate counter-norms. Even the rules of argument and participation are contested - a far cry from the deliberative truth-seeking envisioned by constructivists.

Keywords: human rights, constructivism, nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, UDHR, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, agenda-setting, jurisgenerative capacity, norms, norms development

JEL Classification: K34, K30, N41

Suggested Citation

Bob, Clifford, Rights on the Rise: International Mobilization for New Human Rights (September 4, 2005). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=902692 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.902692

Clifford Bob (Contact Author)

Duquesne University ( email )

600 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15282
United States

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