Power and Principle: Human Rights Programming in International Organizations

Power and Principle: Human Rights Programming in International Organizations

Power and Principle: Human Rights Programming in International Organizations

Power and Principle: Human Rights Programming in International Organizations


The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has instructed all UN specialized agencies and other affiliated organizations to consider how their work might advance the cause of human rights around the world. Many of these bodies have taken this call to heart, with a wide range of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) trying to play a more active role in promoting human welfare.

Power and Principle is a comparative study of how and why IGOs integrate human rights standards into their development operations. It focuses on the process of policy innovation in three UN-related IGOs: the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF,) the World Bank, and the World Health Organization (WHO). In his comprehensive analysis, Joel E. Oestreich uses case studies to demonstrate how their policies have evolved during the past two decades to reflect important human rights considerations.

Drawing on interviews with dozens of staffers from IGOs, Oestreich creates a gripping narrative of the inner workings of these large bureaucracies. In each study he describes how the organization first became interested in human rights standards, how these standards were adopted as a priority, how the organization defined rights in the context of their work, and what a rights-based approach has meant in practice. The book argues that IGOs ought to be seen as capable of meaningful agency in international politics, and describes the nature of that agency. It concludes with an examination of these organizations and their ethical responsibilities as actors on the world stage.


In 1979 the Polish delegation to the United Nations proposed that the international community consider a new charter on children's rights. The Polish proposal came during the International Year of the Child, and it was meant to build on the publicity being generated for children's welfare around the world. The then-communist Polish delegation's proposal for the charter also had overtones of Cold War propaganda; it emphasized the sort of “positive” rights that were favored by socialist states (e.g., the right to health care or adequate housing) and that were used to embarrass those Western states that tended to promote more “negative” rights (e.g., free speech and freedom of religion).

As the process of drafting the charter—the proposed Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)—wore on, it followed the usual pattern of such documents, as compromises were made between East and West, and North and South, over its content. By the mid-1980s, however, an unusual factor emerged: A particular UN agency, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), began to take an interest. By the late 1980s UNICEF had become an important behind-the-scenes force in drafting the CRC. And by 1989 it was running its own campaign aimed at achieving universal acceptance of the CRC.

Intuitively, UNICEF's actions do not seem very surprising. As the UN's “lead agency for children,” it ought to have been interested in and supportive of the CRC from the beginning. Yet its decision reversed the standard model of how such agencies work, in which states create international organizations, and those organizations carry out the wishes of their creators. In this case, UNICEF's executive director, James Grant, decided what he wanted, and he then used his organization to push . . .

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