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A key concern among many authors is the uneven level of participation by different groups and peoples in the process of formulating and diffusing global norms. The question is, "Who gets a voice in the process of the global diffusion of law?"

From Center to Periphery

As the notion of center/periphery connotes, there are states, organizations and individuals at the center of global lawmaking, and there are others that are marginalized. There are groups with greater access to resources, are better organized and have access to the centers of power (or make up the centers of power), and there are groups that have none of these. Diffusion not only tends to move from the former to the latter, but relatively powerful players are largely in control of the diffusion of law.

When Is This a Problem?

When the formulation and diffusion of global law is left exclusively in the hands of political or financial elites, there is the chance that the interests of the elite will not match the interests of those excluded from the center. In other words, what is good for the powerful is not always good for the less powerful.

Some authors have noted that small, organized groups with access to positions of influence sometimes press for global policies that benefit their short-term interests but harm the longer-term interests of the global population as a whole. Policies on the environment are a good example. International business interests are likely to seek to prevent environmental regulations that dampen business efficiency and therefore profit margin. Left to corporate elites, global regulation might reflect only their short-term interests.

However, preserving the environment is in the long-term interests of the world populace as a whole. Without a voice in creating and diffusing (through enforcement and monitoring) global law, less organized groups (like consumers, mass publics or the denizens of developing nations) have few ways to press for their interests.


How is it possible for large, disorganized or marginalized groups to have any voice in the formulation and diffusion of global norms?

Conditions and Strategies

There are a number of conditions under which more marginalized groups can gain a voice in the global arena. Status quo institutions and terms of debate usually favor entrenched elites. Marginalized groups have to create new conditions (for example, change the terms of the debate) or take advantage of contradictions in dominant global norms to gain a relative advantage.

For instance, powerful international actors may value equality of opportunity. However, this may be contradicted in practice when women get less pay for similar jobs. Women's rights groups can highlight this contradiction to press for equality of treatment. By using changing global conditions to their advantage, less powerful actors can increase their global influence.


Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have become powerful voices for less powerful groups in the arena of global law and regulation. By mobilizing (and shaping) the power of public sentiment, providing high-quality information and building relationships with like-minded organizations across the globe, NGOs can provide a voice for those who would normally have no voice in global policies.


Conditions change. NGO influence is uneven. Powerful groups may offer token statements of change while doing little to change behavior. Some authors recommend a more institutionalized solution. They suggest that one way to create a more democratic global regulatory arena may be to create permanent transnational institutions designed to integrate public input and provide greater transparency.

When Is Diffusion from the Center a Good Thing?

Globalizing norms from the center is not necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, less powerful groups at the periphery resist global norms. If left on their own—that is to say, if diffusing global norms depends solely on the local population—local groups may simply ignore global norms they do not like.

In the arena of human rights norms, this could be a disaster. While the international community values the principle of majority rule, this value has its limits. In situations where, for instance, female genital cutting is widely accepted, privileging local norms over international values will keep the practice in place. Without diffusing human rights law from the center, there would be little justification for condemning local laws or policies (like ethnic cleansing) that support the whole-sale destruction of racial or ethnic groups.

Bottom Line

Participation in the formulation and diffusion of global norms is uneven. Norms tend to flow from global centers to the global periphery. Uneven participation may result in some powerful groups discounting the interests of less powerful groups. However, sometimes diffusing norms from the center to the periphery is necessary to change entrenched local practices.

Keytexts used to create this overview:
How to Make International Lawmaking More Democratic

Small Groups Wield Big Influence in International Lawmaking

Small Groups Play Domestic and International Processes Against Each Other to Avoid Regulation

International Community Puts Pressure on National Lawmaking

The Origin of Anti-Female Genital Cutting Laws

Individuals Can Be Powerful Agents of Globalization

Modeling Law May Change Power Relations

How Rape Became a Crime against Humanity

How Do Transnational Advocacy Networks Work?

Transnational Advocacy Networks and International Policy

The Role of NGOs in Making UN Law

Making Global Human Rights into Local Reality

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