Academic journal article Global Governance

Latin American Countries as Norm Protagonists of the Idea of International Human Rights

Academic journal article Global Governance

Latin American Countries as Norm Protagonists of the Idea of International Human Rights

Article excerpt

Latin American governments, social movements, and regional organizations have made a far greater contribution to the idea and practice of international human rights than has previously been recognized. Most discussions of the global human rights regime stress its origins in the countries of the Global North. This article explores the role of Latin America states as early protagonists of the international protection of human rights, focusing in particular on the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. Histories of human rights in the world emphasize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, as the founding moment of international human rights. Few know that Latin American states passed a similar American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man a full eight months before passage of the UDHR. The American Declaration thus was the first broad enumeration of rights adopted by an intergovernmental organization. This article explores the American Declaration as an example of often overlooked Latin American human rights protagonism that has continued to this day, and that calls into question the idea that human rights originated in only the Global North. Keywords: American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, history of human rights.


AS THE DISCIPLINE OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS IS MOVING AWAY FROM THE study of "international relations" and toward the study of "global governance," it has generated a greater interest in the social construction of what is to be governed--that is, how a problem becomes defined and gets placed on the agenda. (1)

Scholars looking at who sets the global human rights agenda often argue that attention to human rights issues is the result of the dominance of powerful states. Others argue that Northern-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continue to be powerful gatekeepers who frequently block or reshape issues from NGOs and social movements based in the Global South. (2) Scholars of diffusion suggest that ideas and policies often diffuse vertically from the Global North to the Global South via processes of coercion or emulation. (3)

There is a need for scholars of international norms to pay greater attention to the potential agency of states outside the Global North despite important structural inequality in the international system. But the very binaries of North/South or West/non-West may obscure the process we hope to illuminate. Latin America, for example, complicates these binaries that associate the Global North with the West. Because Latin American scholars and politicians are from the Global South, and yet as Louise Fawcett argues, are neither fully "Western" nor "non-Western," the West/non-West dichotomy in some international relations scholarship has neglected Latin American contributions. (4)

Southern protagonism arguably increases the legitimacy of global governance projects, including the human rights project. Amitav Acharya, for example, critiques the study of normative change for ignoring the appeal of local and regional norms and for failing to locate agency in local and regional actors. He then develops the concepts of norm "localization," a process through which local actors actively reconstruct global norms to create a fit between those norms and prior local norms, and the related concept of norm "subsidiarity," whereby states and regional actors from the Global South can create new norms or new understandings of existing global norms. (5) Acharya's concept of localization is related to the concept of norm "vernacularization" proposed by anthropologist Sally Engle Merry. Merry points to social movements as human rights "intermediaries" that help "vernacularize international human rights discourses," (6) negotiating between "the language of international human rights preferred by international donors, and cultural terms that will be acceptable to at least some of the local community. …

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