Emerging Global Actors: The United Nations and National Human Rights Institutions

By Cardenas, Sonia | Global Governance, January-March 2003 | Go to article overview
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Emerging Global Actors: The United Nations and National Human Rights Institutions


Cardenas, Sonia, Global Governance


There is a new and significant development in the field of human rights: the U.N. led proliferation of national human rights institutions (NHRIs). NHRIs are government agencies whose purported aim is to implement international norms domestically. These institutions have expanded considerably since the early 1990s, quadrupling in number and appearing in almost 100 countries. What explains the diffusion of such similar institutions across diverse national contexts? In this article, I argue that the entry of this actor onto the world stage cannot be understood without examining the role of international organizations, especially the United Nations. Whereas international support for NHRIs in the past merely defined appropriate institutional structures and functions, today international actors are directly engaged in creating and strengthening these institutions. Support from the UN and other international organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental alike, has allowed NHRIs to take the unprecedented step of forging transgovernmental alliances and to even begin acquiring formal international standing.

While students of international relations have overlooked these developments, NHRIs do signal an important innovation in global governance. (1) The emergence of these institutions marks a potentially significant step in the implementation of international human rights law. In the words of the Canadian government, NHRIs may be "the practical link between international standards and their concrete application, the bridge between the ideal and its implementation." (2) Given this transformative agenda, we need a much better understanding of how international actors like the UN, which has been at the forefront of these human rights activities, actually engage in national institution building. (3) At the same time, as long as states remain the principal "makers" and "breakers" of international law, support for NHRIs may be a doubleedged phenomenon, presenting both opportunities and challenges for the local protection of human rights norms.

In addressing these trends, I advance two sets of arguments. First, I contend that, contrary to conventional state-centric expectations, the UN has played a crucial role in creating and strengthening NHRIs. It has done so by means of four mechanisms: standard setting, capacity building, network facilitating, and membership granting. I provide support for this general proposition by tracing UN support historically, presenting descriptive statistics, and using counterfactual reasoning. Other actors--including government agencies, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)--have contributed to these activities, especialty in terms of capacity building; but only the UN has been equipped to coordinate and legitimate the global diffusion of these national institutions. Second, drawing on the nascent experience of NHRIs, I propose that, while the creation of NHRIs is a welcome development, insofar as it serve s to embed international norms in local structures, it also can have perverse consequences. National human rights institutions can have the unintended effect of heightening social expectations, which governments are then unwilling or unable to meet; in some instances, this could lead to less rather than more human rights protection. Although I structure the article around these two central arguments, in an introductory section I survey the functions and relevance of emerging NHRIs, namely their role in implementing international norms domestically. In the remainder of the article I focus on the interplay between the UN and national institutions.

Domestic Implementation of International Norms

The stated objective of all governmental human rights institutions is to implement international norms domestically. Put differently, NHRJs are intended to be the permanent, local "infrastructure" upon which international human rights norms are built; they are not to be confused with ad hoc truth commissions or other temporary crisis-driven institutional arrangements.

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