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New Rights Advocacy: Changing Strategies of Development and Human Rights NGOs

New Rights Advocacy: Changing Strategies of Development and Human Rights NGOs by Paul J. Nelson and Ellen Dorsey. Georgetown University Press, 2008, 232 pp.

Dr. Paul Nelson, professor in international development at the University of Pittsburgh, and Ellen Dorsey, former chair of the board at Amnesty International USA, have written this book—under their common signature—which appears in the series “Advancing Human Rights.” Available only in paperback, New Rights Advocacy includes five chapters plus an index.

Right from the start, this dense title needs a little explanation, given the many elements gathered here in just one line. The authors define “new rights advocacy” as the “advocacy on social, economic, or development policy, at local, national, or international levels, which makes explicit reference to internationally recognized human rights standards” (p. 19). In other words, “New rights advocacy is a dual concept;” one can say there are nowadays some new approaches to deal with human rights issues, and there are as well new problems and causes to be included in the defense and study of human rights (p. 19). However, this new rights advocacy is not really “brand new;” it is rather a series of lesser-known, emerging approaches and ongoing attitudes that have been observed over the past three decades, for instance whenever mobilizing core concepts such as the “mobilization of shame” methodology, following Robert Drinan’s book (pp. 17, 83).

Advocates in human rights do not work anymore as the previous generation did during the 1980s. Some observers have acknowledged as well the appearance of some new fields and issues for human rights, for instance with the “new substantive rights (e.g., to water),” which go beyond the fundamental—although essential—causes related to ESC rights (economic, social, cultural rights) (p. 20). The nongovernment organizations discussed here are Oxfam International, Amnesty International, Save the Children, ActionAid, CARE, plus a few newer NGOs like Human Rights Watch which focuses as well on the discrimination patterns that can exist in policies (ibid.). But New Rights Advocacy is not a systematic presentation of organizations and NGOs; these are only mentioned here and there as examples in a more conceptual demonstration.

From the first pages, the authors explain that most of these “changing strategies” related to human rights advocacy have been occurring lately, given to a globalizing context (p. 18). Elsewhere in chapter 1, referring to the human rights studies made in social sciences faculties (and mainly in political science), the authors demonstrate in many ways that “power is central to this analysis” (pp. 6, 32, 36) following some influential scholars like Neil Stammers who considers human rights as a social construction, understanding the “human rights claims as arising out of social movements and their efforts to increase their own power or circumscribe the powers of others” (p. 39).

In my view, chapter 2 is the most instructive of the whole book. For instance, when considering the problem of impunity, the authors identify four major issues which have appeared in the post–Cold War international context in the early 1990s: “the proliferation of communal conflicts and genocides,” “the global explosion of civil society,” “the affront to universality posed by key governments and reactionary forces,” and “the declining strength of the United Nations” (p. 49).

The authors give one example of a changing strategy, quoting an article written by Kenneth Roth from Human Rights Watch (p. 78). Roth used the methodology of “naming and shaming” to target individuals, governments, or states responsible for violating human rights (p. 78). On the other hand, only a few years later, other voices like Leonard Rubenstein from Physicians for Human Rights would propose a much different approach that could create a consensus in which NGOs try to collaborate with states: “In many cases, instead of seeking to embarrass governments, institution-building strategies seek to win them over” (p. 81).

Some conclusions were already announced in the introduction: “we know far too little about where new rights claims come from, how they arise and gain legitimacy and authority” (p. 6). As we know, solutions are to be found after struggles, negotiations, the strategies of social movements, or with advocacy.

This overlooked book by Nelson and Dorsey is clear and well-written, although there are sometimes a few repetitions from one chapter to another. I would have liked more emphasis on the media (and media advocacy), but that supplemental effort might perhaps have led to another book in itself. There is no doubt the authors know their field very well—the theoretical concepts, the literature, the achievements of the many NGOs, and so forth. In other words, they succeeded in formulating the recent trends in human rights studies into theory and concepts, and that is the strongest point in this book. Among its many qualities, I appreciated the usefulness of the tables, specially the one which present dozens of new organizations related to human rights (p. 140). I have to admit there were a few ones on the list of which I was not aware. In the other table, the authors compare some of the implementation of rights-based approaches (p. 115).

In sum, New Rights Advocacy is a book written by two experienced scholars, firstly for academics, students, and practitioners in international development, international relations, organizational management, or for those working inside nongovernment organizations. Undergraduates and scholars in strategic studies might sometimes feel lost, even though all concepts introduced here are clearly demonstrated. But graduate students working on advocacy or on human rights will find here a well-documented source with many useful and recent references, even though the book as such is not essential.

Yves Laberge, PhD

Series Editor, Les Presses de l’Université Laval


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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