Chains of Justice: The Global Rise of State Institutions for Human Rights

Chains of Justice: The Global Rise of State Institutions for Human Rights

Chains of Justice: The Global Rise of State Institutions for Human Rights

Chains of Justice: The Global Rise of State Institutions for Human Rights


National human rights institutions--state agencies charged with protecting and promoting human rights domestically--have proliferated dramatically since the 1990s; today more than a hundred countries have NHRIs, with dozens more seeking to join the global trend. These institutions are found in states of all sizes--from the Maldives and Barbados to South Africa, Mexico, and India; they exist in conflict zones and comparatively stable democracies alike. In Chains of Justice, Sonia Cardenas offers a sweeping historical and global account of the emergence of NHRIs, linking their growing prominence to the contradictions and possibilities of the modern state.

As human rights norms gained visibility at the end of the twentieth century, states began creating NHRIs based on the idea that if international human rights standards were ever to take root, they had to be firmly implanted within countries--impacting domestic laws and administrative practices and even systems of education. However, this very position within a complex state makes it particularly challenging to assess the design and influence of NHRIs: some observers are inclined to associate NHRIs with ideals of restraint and accountability, whereas others are suspicious of these institutions as "pretenders" in democratic disguise. In her theoretically and politically grounded examination, Cardenas tackles the role of NHRIs, asking how we can understand the global diffusion of these institutions, including why individual states decide to create an NHRI at a particular time while others resist the trend. She explores the influence of these institutions in states seeking mostly to appease international audiences as well as their value in places where respect for human rights is already strong.

The most comprehensive account of the NHRI phenomenon to date, Chains of Justice analyzes many institutions never studied before and draws from new data released from the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council. With its global scope and fresh insights into the origins and influence of NHRIs, Chains of Justice promises to become a standard reference that will appeal to scholars immersed in the workings of these understudied institutions as well as nonspecialists curious about the role of the state in human rights.


High up the embankment of Agra Fort, next to a sweeping view of the Taj Mahal, is a nondescript archway with a marble plaque. the tablet marks the spot of a legendary chain from the seventeenth century. the unusual chain was according to some accounts made of gold, was eighty feet long, and had sixty bells attached to it, linking Agra Fort to a post by the nearby riverbank. It was known simply as the “chain of justice,” and forging it was one of Nuruddin Jahangir’s first acts as leader of the Mughal Empire. the plan was for ordinary people to go to the palace and rattle the chain to get the emperor’s attention. As Jahangir described it in his memoir, “[I]f those engaged in the administration of justice should delay or practice hypocrisy … the oppressed might come to this chain and shake it so that its noise might attract attention.” While little is known about whether the chain was used or why Jahangir had it built, most intriguing is the chain’s symbolism. It represented a potent idea: individuals suffering injustice at the hands of the empire had a right to seek redress directly from the emperor. Regardless of Jahangir’s commitment to justice, the chain may also have helped him extend his rule. From the emperor’s vantage point, the chain could rein in dissenting administrators, persuading them to act justly or suffer the consequences. Perhaps most important, the chain might rechannel popular discontent against the empire, making it more likely that the aggrieved would seek justice over rebellion.

Jahangir’s chain of justice stands as a powerful if unexpected metaphor for contemporary human rights practice. Though four centuries have passed, modern states and their leaders still act remarkably similarly to the logic that propelled Jahangir. States today routinely undermine human rights at the same time . . .

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