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Research Handbook on International Human Rights Law

Research Handbook on International Human Rights Law

Research Handbooks in International Law series

Edited by Sarah Joseph and Adam McBeth

This innovative and timely Handbook brings together the work of 25 leading human rights scholars from all over the world to consider a broad range of human rights topics.

Chapter 5: NGOs and Human Rights: Channels of Power

Peter J. Spiro

Subjects: law - academic, human rights, public international law, politics and public policy, human rights


Peter J Spiro 1 Introduction Non-governmental organizations (‘NGOs’) present a formidable theoretical challenge to traditional conceptions of international law and international relations. In the Westphalian model, states alone have enjoyed international legal personality. To the extent that other actors must be processed by international law, it has been only in relation to the state. NGOs and other non-state actors were historically framed as dependent entities, insofar as they were addressed at all.1 That was an understandable tendency, as a matter of both empirics and theory. Although the history is now being rewritten in light of their rising contemporary prominence, NGOs were of secondary importance in international relations on the ground during the modern period. As a matter of theory, to concede independent power to NGOs would have undermined the logic of the state-based system. In the one sense, NGOs could be ignored; in the other, they had to be ignored. That is no longer an option. Since the end of the Cold War and the dawn of globalization, no analysis of international relations can credibly bracket the role of NGOs. Non-state actors have emerged as important players on the international scene. Across issue areas, NGOs exercise influence on international processes. The role is perhaps most prominent in the context of human rights, in terms of both the density and the prominence of NGO activity. The role of NGOs remains under-theorized. A burgeoning social science literature relating to NGOs has emerged in recent years. However, this work tends to be narrow...

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