Jon Rothendler ’14
On Thursday November 29, Trinity featured a common hour lecture on newly appointed Professor Sonia Cardenas who spoke on the history and current situation of global human rights issues. The series, entitled The Global Rise of National Human Rights Institutions was primarily focused on the actual groups and organized networks that compromise human rights efforts across the world. Prof. Cardenas is the director of the Human Rights Program at Trinity as well as the Charles A. Dana Research Associate Professor of Political Science. She has published numerous articles as well as opinion pieces, book chapters, and reviews. Her focus is primarily on the advancement of the interdisciplinary study of human rights.
Cardenas began her work on human rights institutions while working on her dissertation in Mexico City. She heard an advertisement on the radio for a human rights organization in the city that ordinary people could go to if they needed legal help or felt that their basic human rights were being threatened. Cardena’s curiosity got the better of her, and she decided to invest her time learning about these organized human rights groups. The technical term for organizations such as the one in Mexico City is a National Human Rights Institution, or NHRI. They are defined as a permanent administrative body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights domestically.
NHRIs were initially established as groups that met the standards of the Paris Principles, defined in Paris at the first International Workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in 1991. The Principles were adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the United Nations General Assembly shortly after they were drafted. This also set up an international coordinating committee that has the power to accredit other NHRI’s. It is comprised by the 18 largest NHRI’s in the world. The
committee has been highly successful in promoting the idea of Human Rights Institutions, and to this day, only 15 countries in the world have said that they will not create an NHRI. Since these institutions are technically state based, the governing body of the country must give permission for a NHRI to be established. Europe currently has the highest concentration of NHRIs in the world, with the very first NHRI located in France. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries rushed to create NHRIs It was thought to not only be a status symbol, but also a sign that a country cared about the well being of its people. Although the number of NHRIs in Europe is very high, the degree to which each NHRI actually functions is debatable. Many of these institutions are non-compliant, meaning that they might not “promote and protect” nearly as aggressively as another institution would.
The standard of a NHRI has come a long way since it was first conceptualized. The first norm emergence occurred in the mid 1900s, although it was not until the 1990s that the first real standards were set. There was also a spike in the number of NHRIs across the globe during this time period. By 2005, NHRIs had become increasingly connected and networks of groups began to emerge more rapidly. Jump to the present day and NHRIs have important international standing and enforcement of human rights has become a top priority. Through her research and work, Cardenas has established an overview of the cause and effect of creating an NHRI. Things tend to diffuse under norm ambiguity, meaning that leaders have a strong incentive to adopt socially applicable ideas and institutions, such as an NHRI. This also gives space for norm-diffusing agents to promote new ideas. In the modern era, technology and social media has reached a level where diffusion can occur on a huge scale very rapidly.
As the world prepares to enter a new era of communication and connection, human rights groups are eager to push for a greater global awareness of the human rights violations that occur to millions every day. Diffusion has allowed people to promote institutions and committees whose primary focus is to uphold and protect human rights. The ability to share information anywhere, at any time, has given activists a new weapon to fight with, and allowed NHRIs to network and expand. Countries that had never considered having a NHRI have seen immense local and international pressure to accept and develop these institutions. Although having a NHRI does not necessarily indicate a complete government backing, it is still one step towards establishing a global network of institutions that guarantee basic rights for all human beings.