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Smart Library on Globalization > Smart Library on Law and Globalization > The Global Spread of Law > Overview: Aspects of Diffusing Law Globally
Five Challenges to Diffusing Women's Rights Law
How can human rights law be both global and local at the same time? Anthropologist Sally Engle Merry identifies five challenges activists face when diffusing international human rights law.
To make a difference, abstract human rights law must enter into and shape the thinking, feeling and action of people in local situations. For instance, highly abstract United Nations conventions must shape the individual ways of thinking and acting of women in places as diverse as rural African villages or Chicago suburbs.
However, diffusing international laws to individual people is anything but a straightforward process. Part of the reason is that this diffusion involves some thorny conundrums.
Anthropologist Sally Engle Merry identifies five challenges facing the diffusion of women's rights law.
Universal and Local Frameworks
International human rights conventions are formulated in the rarefied language of universal values and international law. This is as needs be since a universal standard is necessarily abstract. It has to be formulated in a way that covers all situations in all parts of the globe.
The problem is that formulating human rights law in this way makes it a challenge to tailor the law to particular social and political situations. Universal beliefs and norms have to be made meaningful in local settings. This is not a smooth process.
For instance, in India, amidst Hindu and Muslim tension, universal secular law protecting women's rights and freedoms has increased ethnic tension. One group supports the universal law (at least officially), at the same time they use the law as a way to gain political advantage over the opposing ethnic group. In short, abstract, universal law may bring nations together in Geneva, but may serve to tear groups apart in local circumstances.
Human Rights Ideas Must Be Tailored to Local Situations—But Not Entirely
It is true that universal ideas and norms must be tailored to particular situations in order to make them meaningful to local people. However, the whole idea behind universal human rights is that they make a difference in the way people treat each other “on the ground.”
So, the problem:
International law is more easily accepted if it does not shake up local hierarchies of power. But, the point is to challenge local relationships that put vulnerable groups at risk.
Local Needs and International Legitimacy
The kinds of approaches that will make international human rights laws meaningful and useful in local contexts do not always make sense in terms of international language. That is, international agencies and funding organizations want to know that international law is making a difference and that their money is being well spent. However, what the international organization defines as success may not quite fit with the local definition of success.
For instance, the goal of an international convention on women's right is to champion women's rights in local settings. Seems straightforward. However, within a particular situation asserting women's rights could meet with strong (perhaps insurmountable) opposition. So, local activists and constituents try a different tack. They may focus on the less inflammatory issue of “the treatment of women”–perhaps emphasizing the treatment of women as a matter of filial piety.
So, individuals at a local level can make strides in terms of the way women are treated, but, from an international funder's perspective, does this really count as forwarding women's rights? An approach or program may work at the local level, but may not be defined as a success by international funding agencies and organizations. The problem is, without demonstrating success to international agencies and funders (on their terms) the local interventions are in danger of losing funding or credibility.
Willingness to Adopt Human Rights Ideas Depends on Success
Adopting human rights ideas and ideals means changing the way that individuals think, feel and act. But, individuals ask themselves, “Will this really help? Will my situation really be better?” If an individual asserts a right, but no one takes her seriously, what is the point of asserting the right? Individuals and institutions have to take the right seriously for it to make a difference.
Another way of saying this is that in order to promote individual human rights consciousness, institutions have to implement rights effectively. If individuals cannot see any benefit or success when they make claims, then human rights rhetoric will appear to be just that: all words but make no real difference.
The challenge, however, is that institutions do not change on their own. Institutions are defined ways of thinking and acting. There will not be reason for an institution (like the local police) to change unless there is pressure to change. In order for institutions to be motivated to take steps to implement rights, they need pressure to take these rights seriously. In other words, institutions create the basis for rights consciousness, but rights consciousness provides institutions with the motivation to make these changes.
Put bluntly, people are unlikely to change unless institutions change (act effectively on the new ideas), but institutions are unlikely to change unless people change (and put pressure on the institution).
What about States?
Governments are established hierarchies of power. Human rights ideals can challenge these hierarchies. For instance, if a women's rights movement takes direct aim at patriarchal relationships, then a government (state or local) that excludes women may be squarely in the movement's sites. Many see human rights movements as a direct challenge to state power. And, indeed, states within the United Nations are often loathe to concede influence to NGOs. Depending on what information the NGO provides, the state could come off looking bad.
However, the main focus of human rights activism is on states. Human rights activists may want the state to change, but they also need the state in order to succeed. Challenging state action may not lessen state control or influence at all. In fact, to the extent that states implement human rights policies, state regulatory control can increase.
Data and Methods:
Ethnographic analysis of documents and interviews.
Merry, Sally Engle. 2006. Human Rights & Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Ch. 7, pp. 218-231.