The Duck of Minerva

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Human rights NGOs: Just Hot Air?

December 3, 2012

Charli’s posts on Human Rights Watch and Autonomous Weapons got me thinking: should we really expect human rights international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to influence weapons systems?   On the whole, human rights NGOs are a pretty powerless lot: NGOs don’t control military resources like states do and they are typically not at the decision-making table.  Why would a powerful state ever listen to the musings of an NGO?  Are all of these reports and calls-for-action by NGOs really just hot air?

This large question – the impact of organizations like Human Rights Watch – has been on my mind for quite a while; a lot of my work concerns the effects and interactions of these actors. And, largely consistent with the very influential scholarship of Margaret Keck, Kathryn Sikkink, Thomas Risse, and Stephen Ropp, I do find that these organizations matter for human rights practices within states.  When organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch “shame” a state for their human rights practices, under certain conditions, the state is likely to improve their human rights performance.  My work – and the work of my coauthors – shows this.  So does powerful work by James Franklin, Matt Krain, Jackie DeMeritt,  Cullen Hendrix and Wendy Wong, and many others (For an alternative take that does not show an effect, please see this piece by Emilie Hafner-Burton).

But, for the situation Charli is discussing, we really aren’t interested in whether NGOs matter for the very distant outcome of human rights performance within the targeted country – we are interested in whether NGOs matter for foreign policy – when the rubber hits the road, do these organizations really influence how a country conducts its foreign policy and utilizes its military resources?  Here, I think the general gut feeling, even among activists (see this for some really cool data on activists themselves), may be more pessimistic.

My recent work with Dursun Peksen, however, indicates that NGOs – and the information they produce – actually does influence foreign policy, even realpolitik decisions about use of force.  First, in this forthcoming piece, Dursun and I find that the “shaming” reports of human rights NGOs matter for the use of economic sanctions by major powers – including the US.  When a country is shamed more often by human rights NGOs, it is more likely to be on the receiving-end of economic sanctions, even after accounting for the host of other reasons why states sanction.  We argue that this has little to do with whether the human rights NGOs are actually calling for economic sanctions or not.  The information these organizations produce just starts a process of mobilization where concerned individuals pressure state actors to “do something” for human rights. The finding is completely consistent with the canonical literature – human rights NGOs produce information which then leads more powerful state actors to join in and pressure a state to change their human rights practices.  Still, it’s pretty surprising: human right NGOs are capable of influencing economic diplomacy. (Now, just to be clear, when we consider all of the negative effects that sanctions have on human rights, this influence of human rights NGOs may not be a good thing for human rights performance -see this, this, or this).

But, wait…it gets better: Dursun and I just presented this piece at ISA-Midwest on the ways in which NGOs influence humanitarian military decisions.  In it, we find that human rights NGOs can have a profound influence on the decision of states to intervene with actual boots-on-the-ground.  This finding holds even when we account for a host of other possible political and economic reasons that could influence the use of force.   We argue that this is a special corollary to the supposed “CNN Effect”  – human rights NGOs are credible actors with information on human atrocities; when they issue reports about a situation, a process of mobilization and opinion change starts, ending in a decision to “do something” for human rights.

Anyway, I think all of this research on the effects of NGOs – all very new but speaking to old debates in the IR literature – should make us somewhat optimistic about the potential of Human Rights Watch to influence DoD decision-making on autonomous weapon systems in a way that protects human rights.  The key causal mechanism in this process, however, is the ability of human rights NGOs to influence public opinion and domestic mobilization in ways that lead citizens to pressure their representatives for certain actions.  Unfortunately, evidence of this intermediary step – and the conditions when such mobilization is likely in major power states – is far more nascent.

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Amanda Murdie is Professor & Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations in the Department of International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. She is the author of Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford, 2014). Her main research interests include non-state actors, and human rights and human security.

When not blogging, Amanda enjoys hanging out with her two pre-teen daughters (as long as she can keep them away from their cell phones) and her fabulous significant other.