Bypassing democracy: Why domestic human rights NGOs in stable democracies appeal to multilateral forums

Paul Janssen Danyi, Purdue University


Answering why domestic advocacy groups in democratic states choose to utilize international institutions as part of their activism is an important component in understanding how democracies are pressured to comply with human rights obligations. The international relations literature on the subject of why domestic advocacy groups pressure states to comply by using international forums has centered around activists in repressive countries or the ways in which “gatekeepers” in international civil society either help or block domestic groups’ concerns. There has been little focus on why domestic advocacy groups in highly democratic states make efforts to independently engage with international forums. This study provides an answer through an investigation of domestic human rights NGOs in three democracies – the United States of America, Canada, and Germany – and their submissions to the first round of country reviews at the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) from 2006. The study examines the mechanisms through which 24 domestic human rights NGOs across these three countries came to use the Universal Periodic Review. The findings show that advocacy organizations in democracies opt to use international forums based partially on strategic explanations. NGOs also explain the use of international forums based on norms of how activism for human rights ought to be carried out. Overall, the decision to use international forums can be readily made on the basis of marginal advantages as well as steered by group norms and identity easily. This is because engagement with the Universal Periodic Review is a low-cost form of activism. Low resource or highly local groups often decide to make use of international forums as low-cost opportunities and subsequently rationalize using international forums through either strategic or normative rationales or a combination of the two. Highly professionalized groups more frequently articulate means-ends paths through which reporting to the UPR can lead to increased compliance. Neither type of group relies solely on means-ends justifications or solely on norm-driven rationalizations. Each type of group can articulate comparative advantages of using the UPR, whether those advantages have borne fruit or not. Groups process the decision to use international forums under conditions of uncertainty and frequently when such new low-cost opportunities are made known to them they decide to participate first as part of an all-of-the-above approach to dealing with intractable human rights violations. There is no one path to reporting to the UPR, but rather pathways are chosen that are contingent on a group’s past decisions and experiences, the networks of groups they have chosen to work within, and how activists perceive the political environment.




Clark, Purdue University.

Subject Area

International Relations|Political science

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