Thursday, July 10, 2014

Activists Beyond Borders, Margaret E Keck and Kathryn Sikkink (1998)

Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s Activists Beyond Borders (1998) [227pp] examines transnational activism and the types of pressure that groups bring to bear across national frontiers.  They argue that since the 1970’s, transnational networks have proven to be effective tools for policy change around key issues such as human rights, the environment, equality and women’s rights that appeal to international groups (9).  Transnational advocacy networks are effective because they “re-frame” domestic issues in order to gain leverage, pressure and persuade the nation-state (2).  TANs foster relationships across national borders that help them to change the flows of information so that local issues get international exposure (9).  They also work when channels of communication are blocked between domestic groups and their own governments.  Keck and Sikkink discuss the "boomerang pattern" of influence; NGOs bypass their state to find international allies that will help them to pressure the state from the outside (12). 

Still, working with transnational advocacy networks can be problematic.  One downside of this relationship between local and international groups is that it is reminiscent of colonial relations.  Additionally, local issues must be framed in such a way that they have international appeal; they must resonate with key issues and must be timely and dramatic.  Also, the cases taken up by TANs can be mediated.  For example, NGO’s may look for people who can give testimony about an issue that they are looking to publicize (19).  Sometimes the complexity of an issue can be lost to the need to campaign and tell a story with a clear agent who bears responsibility (27). 

In Latin America the most important human rights organizations include the UN Commission on Human Rights, the UN Committee on Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Amnesty International, Americas Watch, the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), domestic NGOs the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and other organizations such as the Ford Foundation.  Keck and Sikkink point out that none of these groups existed before 1945.  International Human Rights overtook policies of nonintervention after 1945 as a result of the atrocities committed in WWII and the work of activists such as Raphael Lemkin who tried to bring international attention to “genocide” (81-82).  In 1948 Latin American states drafted and passed the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man at the Bogotá Conference in 1948 and months later the UN passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

In the case of the dictatorship in Argentina from 1976-1981, Keck and Sikkink show how TAN pressure led to the government making efforts to improve it’s international image in order to restore the flow of military and economic aid that had been suspended.  TANs also increased resources (ie. Human rights forensic science) to domestic groups like the Mothers de Plaza de Mayo.  In the case of Mexico Keck and Sikkink argue that from 1988-1994, when human rights networks began working on Mexico, there was a marked decline in human rights violations and a strengthening of democratic institutions. 

I did not find the argument about the effectiveness of human rights networks (complete with graphs and statistics) convincing.  For example, as stated previously, in the case of Mexico, the authors argue that there is a direct relationship between increased human rights attention and decreased human rights violations over three date ranges from 1968-1994.  I think there are too many variables to conclude a direct relationship. Also how would Keck and Sikkink account for the increased violence in Mexico as a result of gang activity and drug trafficking after 1994?  Since crime is up it would mean that human rights organizations are paying less attention to Mexico and I don’t think that is the case.  I think there are too many complex factors involved for a direct relationship to be made about the effectiveness of human rights networks in preventing human rights violations.

In general, Activists Beyond Borders is helpful in thinking about how to effect local policy change when the state refuses to engage with a group of citizens.  In El Salvador this is currently playing out in the case of “The 17” Las 17, the women that are serving 30 years in prisons because of miscarriages or abortions.  International attention from the Central American Women’s Network and the relationship between this organization and CAWN’s partner in El Salvador ‘Citizens for the Decriminalization of Abortion’ is putting pressure on the state to reconsider its laws.  In another case, last year the Archbishop of El Salvador closed Tutela Legal’sarchives; international attention was swift and the closure was met with international pressure to protect and re-open the Tutela Legal archives.  Despite state sovereignty, these cases show that we also live in an international society that is accountable to common interests and values.  Still, the system is imperfect because poorer and more vulnerable nations such as El Salvador are more subject to international approval while rich and powerful nations like the US, seem to be immune.      

Random loose ends:
Keck and Sikkink distinguish between solidarity groups like CISPES that base their support on political ideology versus human rights organizations like Amnesty International that are not political (95). 

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