How Human Rights Advocates Influence Policy at the United Nations

  • Janet Elise Johnson
  • Xenia Marie Hestermann


This article examines strategies used by human rights advocates to lobby for policy at intergovernmental organizations. We suggest that the literatures’ central questions are about how best to organize, connect, and communicate, which are usually seen through theory on transnational advocacy networks and framing. We add that these questions should be seen as gendered, given the continued male dominance within diplomatic corps. With unusual access to their strategy, we conduct a case study of one advocate’s successful campaign to get the United Nations to adopt a country-specific resolution. Like others, we found this campaigning relies upon the use of networks to overcome formal obstacles to access, human rights language to frame the problem, analysis of tally sheets of member states’ voting, and in-person lobbying. We also point out strategies key to their success that are not usually noticed by scholars, such as the gendered dynamics that get advocates in the door.


Human rights United Nations Framing NGO Informal Gender 


Despite being an intergovernmental organization constituted by member states and managed its secretariats (the “first” and “second UNs”), policy at the United Nations has increasingly been shaped by the “third UN,” networks of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), scholars, experts, and consultants with no formal link to either states or the UN (Weiss et al. 2009). This is especially true of human rights, one of the UN’s core functions, with these networks playing a “crucial role…. in defining international human rights norms, developing institutional mechanisms to ensure adherence to international norms, and monitoring national and local human rights practices” (Lopez et al. 1998: 380; also Hudson 2001; Martens 2004; Sargent 2012). Advocates even help draft UN resolutions as well as influence countries’ decisions on resolutions (Smith et al. 1994: 127). The presumption, backed by evidence provided by Kathryn Sikkink’s (2017) extensive review, is that UN human rights policy in turn has been at least somewhat effective in improving people’s lived experience of human rights in the twenty-first century, making the theorizing of the influence of the “third UN” both conceptually significant and practically important.

This article explores the process through which advocates have this lobbying influence.1 As we elaborate below, we examine this through the lens of three interrelated questions. First, how do advocates organize to influence diplomats representing member states, with the literature pointing to the importance of transnational advocacy networks that help overcome formal obstacles to access and influence at the UN (e.g., Keck and Sikkink 1998; Weiss et al. 2009; Bassano 2014). Second, once the formal obstacles are overcome, how do advocates connect with UN diplomats, which we see as a gendered problem as the UN diplomatic core remains male dominated while advocates are more often female (e.g., Somerville and Aroussi 2013; Bjarnegård 2013). Third, how do advocates communicate to persuade member states to support advocates’ policy preferences at the UN (Joachim 2003; Johnson 2009). We argue that these are the essential questions that help explain why the “third UN” has had an impact on policy when they have no formal role in intergovernmental policymaking. For the first and third questions, we are building on well-established international relationship scholarship. For the third question, we are expanding the limited scholarship within human rights about the role of gender in advocacy by bringing in insights from feminist theory, especially feminist institutionalism which has had more prominence within comparative political science. Examining this process is especially important as human rights advocacy is in flux, with the increasing strength of authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China as well as the rise of populism in the USA and the UK, once seen as proponents of human rights (e.g., Rodríguez-Garavito and Gomez 2018).

To answer these questions, this article is a case study of one recent, successful campaign to persuade member states on one country-specific, broad-based human rights resolution in the UN General Assembly.2 Sargent (2012, 132) claims, “[c]ampaigns are a vital part of the strength and influence” of advocates at the UN. Because we want to protect the activists who are targeting a country known for retribution and not undermine the advocacy, we keep the analysis anonymous, calling the campaign’s architect Go Human Rights, its target country Country X, and its desired goal Resolution Y.3 This anonymity allows us to share details of the network’s strategy that scholarship rarely includes and, as a result, undertheorizes. Though it is a challenge to identify a particular impact of a specific mechanism or intervention (Hudson 2001: 339; Cingranelli and Richards 2001), given the dynamics at work, the opposition to this resolution and the work of Go Human Rights over the last several years, it is reasonable to assess the measures pursued by Go Human Rights has played a role in getting their desired UN resolution passed. Our focus here is not on substantiating this role, but examining how and why the tactics can work. While case studies sometimes receive criticism for their generalizability, we argue that this is a critical case study which can suggest the possibilities of such human rights lobbying and generate some propositions about when and how such lobbying can work (Flyvbjerg 2006: 16; Cingranelli and Richards 2001).

Advocates’ Influence on UN Human Rights Policy: Organization, Connection, and Communication, within a Male-Dominated Environment

Human rights policy is made by a variety of institutions at the UN (United Nations 2014). In this case study, we examine the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and specifically the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), which is charged with considering human rights and social development. To get a resolution passed, a member state, with other member states as co-sponsors, must sponsor a resolution and then other member states must vote to approve first by the Third Committee and then by the UNGA. Also important is the Human Rights Council (HRC) which replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2006 (Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations Office 2015). As with all UN bodies, its membership consists of member states, but in this case, 47 states elected by a majority of all the members of the General Assembly. They serve for 3-year terms, with a two-term limit for consecutive terms.4 In both bodies, member states tend to organize by region—African countries, Group of Latin American and Caribbean states (GRULAC), Asian-Pacific states, Western Europe and Other States (WEOG), and Eastern European countries—which have tended to vote as a bloc (UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service 2007: ch. 3).

The primary challenge then for human rights advocates is how to influence member states who officially make human rights policy. This question is most often considered from the angle of how this influence is organized as this plays a big role in determining access and, ultimately, effective influence. NGOs are seen as key, as they are the organizing form legitimated by Article 71 of the UN Charter ( 1945).5 By the new millennium, “[i]n response to the strong lobbying efforts by NGOs in general, the UN has ‘made place’ for NGOs within UN structures by changing accreditation processes before a number of conferences […]” (Sargent 2012: 124).6 However, getting consultative status is incredibly difficult, especially for human rights advocates. The determining committee often includes countries (as of 2017, China, Russia, and Iran) not known for their support of civil society. The process, until very recently when the rules changed to require the broadcasting of proceedings, also lacked any real transparency, allowing governments to act strategically without many consequences (United Nations 2017b). Other obstacles are problems for all types of NGOs. Until 1996, formal rules meant that NGOs seeking consultative status had to be international as opposed to national, but in practice, this remains an informal rule (Martens 2004), and there are many more applicants than the committee can consider, creating a several-year backlog. As of December 2016, of the multitudes of NGOs around the world, only 5083 NGOs have consultative status (United Nations 2017a).

Without consultative status, it is almost impossible for NGOs to get resources inside the UN, and this can be a problem for their advocacy, since diplomats and representatives from country missions have limited time to meet with human rights advocacy officers outside the UN headquarters when the UNGA is in session. Some NGOs have found ways around these obstacles, by “being taken ‘piggy-back’ on the consultative status” of another NGO (Martens 2004). Reflective of these kinds of relationships between NGOs as well as their perception of the system as a whole, most scholars have moved toward transnational advocacy (or policy) network models, seeing NGOs as a part of larger sets of individuals and groups connected through a web of relationships and shared advocacy goal (e.g., Keck and Sikkink 1998; Hudson 2001; Weiss et al. 2009; Sargent 2012; Bassano 2014). Central to these networks are political (or norm) entrepreneurs: the legal professionals, professional experts, and advocacy officers. They are entrepreneurial in their sharing of information, their networking, and their drive to attract broader publics and create new channels of institutional access based on their commitment to norms and policy reform (Keck and Sikkink 1998: 14). Given recent shifts in global politics, Rodríguez-Garavito and Gomez (2018) call into question Keck and Sikkink’s (1998) boomerang model, in which these networks leverage democracies to put pressure non-democracies.

Influence at the UN is seen in how networks tend to strategically leverage their outside-insider status to create sustainable access to member states—what we call here connection—to persuade the member states and UN bureaucracy (e.g., Weiss et al. 2009). Mechanisms of “advocacy can range from cooperative to confrontational”; some advocates “choose to lobby politicians behind closed doors, while others stage public demonstrations; some use conciliatory language while others invoke provocative images to make their point” (Stroup and Murdie 2012: 425, 426; also Fogarty 2011: 208). As the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service ( 2007, 33) points out, “delegates...make alliances that never appear in the public view.” Scholars have found that organizations working on human rights through the UN tend to use “insider” tactics, “working within the system,” and creating more cooperative than contentious relationships (Fogarty 2011: 209; Lopez et al. 1998; UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service 2007: 131). Such insider tactics demand some formal access to political institutions and typically require different resources (e.g., skills, money) than do the “outsider” tactics of public demonstrations (Lopez et al. 1998: 394).

Access is not only a formal problem of getting consultative status but also informal (Stroup and Murdie 2012), and this, we argue, should be seen as a gendered problem of connection, even for non-gender-specific human rights issues.7 While diplomats and advocates alike tend toward elite education and little diversity in terms of race and ethnicity,8 the majority of the diplomats are still male, and there remains a culture of chumminess, if not hostility to women in some settings (e.g., Gil 2014; Moore 2018). Even if many of the formal rules promote equality, institutions have gendered, informal rules, and the consequences of gendered informal institutions are essential to power (e.g., Krook and Mackay 2011: 1; Chappell and Waylen 2013: 602). In contrast, many human rights organizations are staffed by women (though directors and advocates are more likely to be men) (Ernst Young 2017; The White House Project 2009).

In colloquial terms, this “first UN” of member states’ diplomats remains an “old boys” club. As theorists who study masculinity argue, the building and maintenance of these “clubs”—or networks—require homosociality, the “non-sexual same-sex bonds, specifically between men” (Gabriel 2014: 49). For Elin Bjarnegård (2013, 24–5), homosociality is a form of “bonding social capital” that makes male-dominated elite networks rational, as being of the same sex can help individuals “understand and thus can predict each other’s behavior,” a rough proxy for loyalty. In other words, for elite networks to be built and thrive, “interpersonal capital needs to be built up before an individual is included in a political network and…there are gendered aspects to this interpersonal capital: it is predominantly accessible for other men as well as more valuable when built between men.” Theorists suggest that men are most likely to connect to these elites—and change their minds—when they can enact the same type of “hegemonic masculinity” as the male elites do, in this case, a kind of business professional masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). Women advocates cannot use the same tactics, but are most likely to succeed when they can enact the corresponding “emphasized femininity,” the constructed gender for elite women that complements and complies with this hegemonic masculinity (Johnson 2018). All these problems are potentiated with ethnic or racial differences. Intersectional feminist theorists wrestle with the recommendation that non-white women adopt a kind of “strategic essentialism” in which they claim authenticity strategically even as they recognize the risk of essentialization and undermining their own authority (Lee 2011).

Lastly, once there is connection, there are questions about effective communication by the norm or political entrepreneurs necessary to influence UN member states’ votes on resolutions. Within the international relations literature, there has been a tendency to discuss the norm diffusion by intergovernmental organizations such as the UN, but little focus on how the norms get “consumed” by the organization in the first place (True-Frost 2007). More elucidating is the human rights literature (based on social movement theory) that conceptualizes this process as one of framing (e.g., Joachim 2003; Johnson 2009; Junk and Rasmussen 2018). Frames, such as human rights, provide a way of understanding problems, suggesting what actions should be undertaken to address the problem, and justify this action (Joachim 2003: 247). As Junk and Rasmussen (2018) point out, framing is a collective—not an individualistic—endeavor as lobbyist’s frames work best when they are used by a network of advocates. They also must resonate with the audience they are trying to persuade, in this case, the member states’ diplomats. In other words, the diplomats must see the advocates’ arguments as credible, salient, and not in conflict with what the diplomats see as their state's geopolitical or domestic interests. Framing in terms of universal human rights has certainly been necessary at the UN, but it is not sufficient (Johnson 2009).

The Organizational Question: Go Human Rights as a Transnational Advocacy Network

Go Human Rights, with a central office in New York City, is a network of approximately two-dozen human rights organizations based in more than seven countries across five continents, which works to promote civil, political, social, cultural, and economic rights in Country X through engagement with UN member states and UN mechanisms as well as through participation in intergovernmental processes. It is a relatively small network, in comparison, for example, to the NGO Coalition for an International Criminal Court, which began with 25 members in 1995 and has since expanded to over 2000 (Cakmak 2008: 377). Through the efforts of a skilled organization builder, Go Human Rights grew out of a series of workshops on human rights in Country X, where members of civil society, human rights advocacy officers, and activists collaborated, discussed, and evaluated human rights advocacy. Go Human Rights is also a port of call for local organizations and victims of human rights violations in Country X seeking international assistance.

The central office of Go Human Rights, with a budget of less than a million US dollars per year, is coordinated by 4–5 paid staff (plus interns) who circulate within and among the larger network. In addition to the US-based staff, with easy access to the UN headquarters, there is a consultant based in Switzerland, providing access to the HRC. The paid staff—mostly with law degrees or degrees in international relations, half of whom were born in Country X, and half of whom were women—are the political entrepreneurs who share information, maintain the network, and foster channels of institutional access based on their commitment to norms and policy reform. Go Human Rights does not have consultative status with UN ECOSOC, nor does it intend to apply for such status in the near future, but one of its coalition member does and lets it ride “piggyback” with virtually no conditions. In addition to the official members, there are media organizations, foundations, and other interested parties who help constitute the network as a whole.

Like many similar organizations that seek to engage with multilateral institutions (e.g., Cakmak 2008; Fogarty 2011), Go Human Rights has a complex and evolving network structure, making it hard to classify analytically. The central office is not an officially registered NGO but is housed within another fiscal entity that is a non-profit. It is an advocacy entity as Go Human Rights engages in “activities that challenge the behaviors of states and that attempt to influence international institutions” (Smith et al. 1994: 122). Like most human rights entities that target the UN, Go Human Rights is not oriented toward contentious action. It mostly takes on an “insider strategy" (Fogarty 2011: 209). Though the activists themselves have labeled it a coalition, the network is more than a coalition defined by only coordinated tactics (Khagram et al. 2002: 7). The central office has worked to share its resources with network members and help others build their capacity. As one staff member explains, the central office “serves as a bridge between members and the UN,” helping members leverage activities of the UN and helping staff at the UN trust the members as potential sources of information.

In these ways, Go Human Rights fits Keck and Sikkink’s definition of a transnational advocacy network “characterized by voluntary, reciprocal, and horizontal patterns of communication and exchange” between actors working together on a set of related issues (Keck and Sikkink 1999: 91). The network, shaped by a history of interpersonal relationships, keeps connected through in-person visits, phone and skype calls, email, and different chat platforms, in English as well as the language of Country X. With a dense exchange of information and services, the network is bound together by shared values and a common discourse. As one staff member put it, they share “the belief of the universality of human rights and the drive to improve the situation of human rights in Country X.” Their advocacy network is part of the larger human rights policy community, which has a large informal network within the formal UN system (Keck and Sikkink 1999: 90). However, as in other transnational advocacy networks (Martens 2004), the center of the coalition often makes many of the big, urgent decisions, while being dependent on their international partners for formal access.

Lobbying for UN Resolution Y: Connecting and Communicating

Long- and Short-Term Strategizing

As part of the informal “third UN,” Go Human Rights’ efforts are indirect—trying to mobilize the support of member states to vote for resolutions—but also strategic. First, specific campaigns are laid upon a strong foundation of long-term initiatives to foster connection and communication. For example, Go Human Rights prepares information packages for member states about the current situation of human rights in Country X even when there are no specific campaigns underway. Human rights cases reported to Go Human Rights are part of periodic email updates, which are sent to various institutions that share info with member states as well as sometimes directly to permanent missions to the UN. The network also publicizes current individual cases received directly from Country X through social media to encourage others to reach out to their own governments to take action in individual abuses of human rights. Go Human Rights provides other resources and support, such as translations from English to the language of Country X and vice versa to make the material accessible for people in and outside of Country X. The staff also keeps detailed records of contact persons and past communication efforts with country missions, as well as success and failures, in an effort to facilitate future approaches to reach out to permanent missions to build a strong, reliable database in case of personnel fluctuations within Go Human Rights. In general, Go Human Rights cultivates diplomatic relationships with the kind of personal attention into which women are often socialized. This includes cultural sensitivity and responsiveness as well as such niceties as keeping track of personal things (such as kids) of their contacts and sending thank you notes after votes.

For the specific campaign under investigation here, Go Human Rights strategically set the stage for both connection and communication. Over the proceeding months, they collected data on human rights violations in Country X. Original research is a big part of their advocacy, with the central office doing some of its own research—also drawing upon its network members—but always requiring the reported findings to have met rigorous social scientific standards. This information was then used in an advocacy letter sent from the network itself, several members of the network, and several high-profile human rights organizations to all member states in support of Resolution Y. The network also produced factsheets and infographics, which offer accessible information to UN delegates on human rights in Country X. They distributed their material to member states’ delegations, with the assistance of network members and more prominent human rights organizations. During the debate within the UN, they also use other activities to communicate with their network and supporters, such as fostering coordinated twitter storms led by network members, or by way of video campaigns to increase attention to Country X.

The main focus of Go Human Rights’ advocacy efforts was organizing in-person meetings with member states. As is typical of entities targeting the UN, Go Human Rights adopted an insider approach, what the executive director calls “quiet diplomacy.” Go Human Rights saw this as less a result of their positionality within the human rights system (which is how we most see it), but in response to their read of the current context. There were other world events that were distracting attention from the issue of human rights in Country X, and many countries seemed to be reconsidering their support in light of changing geopolitical dynamics.

In the 3 months before the vote on the resolution at the UNGA, Go Human Rights requested 115 bilateral meetings with representatives from permanent missions of UN member states, with 60 meetings actually taking place and one visit to a member state’s capital. Go Human Rights also attempted five multilateral meetings, with three actually taking place. The meetings were designed around the goal of either making sure the member states (1) continued to support the resolution of the situation of human rights in Country X; (2) moved from being “against” the resolution or abstaining on it to being “in favor”; or (3) they remained “absent” from the vote or abstained rather than vote “no.”

Prioritizing Some Regional Blocs and Member States

Second, Go Human Rights campaign is calculatedly strategic in terms of whom they target. For the chief strategist, based on Go Human Rights’ experiences as global politics began to shift, the question was “not about the votes but how much [social and financial] capital is needed to get the votes.” As with most organizations lobbying the UN (UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service 2007: 65), Go Human Rights keeps a running tally sheet of whose votes they think they can count on, which ones they are sure they cannot count on, and those they would like to influence. The analysis is based on votes from past Country X-related resolutions at the UNGA and at the HRC, dynamics at the HRC and the UNGA based on other resolutions, recent positions, expressed priorities, earlier consultations with diplomats from the main sponsor of the resolution, and in-depth analysis of the political relationships between the individual country and Country X, Country X’s allies, and the sponsors of the resolution. In recognition of the decrease in normative commitments to human rights globally, this conventional tallying is augmented by atypical, sophisticated research into member states trade relationships with Country X. This research and analysis clarified which member states would likely be open to Go Human Right’s communication efforts.

For this campaign, Go Human Rights still counted on Western democracies which have historically been strong supporters of country-specific human rights resolutions (UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service 2007: 29). Go Human Rights mostly engaged with them to discuss resolution language and to assess how they could best compliment their own advocacy work, as well as to nudge them to encourage other member states to support Resolution Y by arranging meetings with countries who were unwilling to meet with Go Human Rights advocacy officers directly. Instead, Go Human Rights focused their energies on the African, Asian, and Latin American/Caribbean bloc which had historically been least supportive of resolutions on human rights in Country X or had the largest number of swing states. For example, Latin American states were targeted because their historically strong support had become more tenuous.

Within those regional categories, Go Human Rights identified swing states—creating first tier, second tier, and third tiers in terms of the priority they assigned the intensity of outreach to each member state—based on a matrix of how influential and influenceable their vote was. Most first tier states were those that were members of the HRC at the time as they were seen as potentially influential to their bloc. This indicates that Go Human Rights perceives that being on the HRC confers the informal powers of being more influential within the geographic groups on human rights-related resolutions in the UNGA, but finds that this means either that are more vulnerable or more impervious to the Go Human Rights messaging. For example, first tier member states included one small African country on the HRC and which had supported resolutions in the past on human rights in Country X while most African countries had not. Similarly, Go Human Rights prioritized Brazil out of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean states since Brazil’s vote was seen as likely to influence other countries, such as El Salvador (both of whom were HRC members). HRC members in the middle of regime changes were also targeted. Hungary, which has become increasingly authoritarian under the leadership of Victor Orbán, has been moving away from supporting human rights resolutions. Tunisia, with a recent regime change away from authoritarianism, was another target, but Go Human Rights also understood that it was under pressure to align itself with its bloc. Finally, Go Human Rights targeted a HRC member state which had unexpectedly switched its vote in favor of the resolution the previous year that the UNGA voted on Resolution Y. Unexpected changes like this receive special attention, since unexpected “yes” votes have to get strengthened to stay as a strong “yes” vote in future. Member states in the middle of a political and/or economic crisis, even if they were on the HRC, or in which elections were imminent, were not prioritized, as it was assumed that their diplomats were harder to reach at the time. Member states which have been resistant to the UN’s human rights apparatus, such as China, Iran, and Russia, and have consistently voted “no” on related resolutions are given the lowest priority (even those like Burundi that were members of the Human Rights Council), given that efforts would have little chance of having impact.

Choosing Meeting Locations

The third strategic decision is about where and how to meet with the member states. In addition to the simple questions of logistics, the location also sets the conditions for how meetings with member states can be approached and held. As is typical for human rights campaigns, almost all meetings were held either in New York City or Geneva at countries consulates, permanent missions, or embassies, with only one in a country’s capital. According to Go Human Rights, the benefit of having meetings in New York City is that the meetings can fly under the radar of Country X since there is so much UN activity and so many locations to meet that provide some level of privacy. The cost is that UN delegates in New York receive many such requests, leaving them less receptive and making it harder for Go Human Rights staff to create social capital. Further, as one of the advocacy officers pointed out, “Most meetings in New York are scheduled over the phone so you actually won’t know who the person you’re meeting with is until you get there,” making it harder to make tactical decisions in advance.

Go Human Rights has found that Geneva allows for more direct and even personal contact with representatives of states since formal rules are less strictly upheld. Go Human Rights finds that approaching member states during sessions of the HRC is easier than in New York when the UNGA is in session. As the advocacy officer elaborated, “Geneva is different because diplomats are approached at their desk while they are still in session…it’s a small community… most people know the regular advocates.” The disadvantages are that the city is much smaller making it harder to hold meetings secretly, and the number of diplomats is much fewer as the embassies are located in Bern (see also United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service 2007: 33).

Though there were other visits to member states’ capitals in the preceding year that laid the groundwork, for this specific campaign, Go Human Rights held only one capital visit, in one of the targeted regions. The limited number was partially a result of when Go Human Rights received the funding for the campaign, but such visits are always costly in terms of money and time. The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service ( 2007: 52) suggests that “[e]xperts from ministries or capitals are more likely to have a substantive understanding of the issues than professional diplomats based at the UN.” Go Human Rights has learned from experience that capital visits also bring the home advantage for officials who can speak more openly, as they are less likely to be overheard by opponents of the Resolution Y. As a result, they are more willing to give unofficial statements or give leading hints (when their vote relies on other countries vote). Go Human Rigths has also found that direct requests can be followed up more quickly without another waiting follow-up. Capital visits can be the only way to reach member states in the middle of crises or elections that prevent diplomats from coming to New York. The end goal of capital visits, as one Go Human Rights advocate said, is “to build relationships for the long term.”

Human Rights Framing and Expat Story Telling

Fourth, Go Human Rights has had to figure out how to communicate effectively with diplomats, gain their confidence, and persuade them to be as supportive of the resolution as the domestic politics of their member state allow. In conversations with the advocates about their work, we found that, without question, Go Human Rights embraces the framing of human rights—from civil and political to social and economic, as well as ethnic, women’s, and LGBTQ rights—that crosses the Global North and South. Their strategy is to focus on human rights issues of most interest to the target member states, such as gender issues with Nordic states, or the consensus issues, such as the death penalty, as these are most likely to resonate broadly. Go Human Rights also nod to Country X’s own framing of which human rights should be prioritized based on their own laws, as they think this legal sensitivity matters on the global stage.

What we found most striking was not how they framed the issues at hand but who did the framing, especially in the more formal exchanges with diplomats. Go Human Rights strategically used their network to have prominent expats from Country X, such as lawyers and journalists, explain, and criticize the situation in Country X. Personal stories have become an important tactic in human rights advocacy, such as for women whose gender-based violations have only been recognized as human rights violations in the last few decades.9 Several of the expats spoke of their own experience being persecuted or imprisoned, but Go Human Rights has found that the stories have not had to be personal for them to be persuasive; news stories about recent human rights violations, especially, if they have some kind of connection to a member state can be effective as well. What is crucial, at least for member states outside of the Global North, is that expats sound authentic, indicated by the accents of those who are fairly recent arrivals from Country X, even as earlier arrivals (who are fully fluent and unaccented in English) or non-expats do most of the work behind the scenes. In these ways, Go Human Rights plays with “strategic essentialism.”

Informal Connecting and Communicating

Unfortunately, we were not able to participate in closed-door, informal meetings with diplomats. We tried asking our informants directly about the meetings but found that they would usually talk about the formal forms of connecting and communicating. For example, as one advocate explained to us, “You go in with power of your argument and understanding the geopolitics of the region.” However, it is an open secret that informal connections and communication are key, as is expressed in off-hand comments. As one of our (female) insider informants expressed, only partially in gest, “everything at the UN happens in the hallways.” Revealing the gendered dynamics, a male member of one of the UN secretariats schooled us that really, such decision-making happens in the (single-sexed) bathrooms.

Our communication with another advocate was more telling about the informal tactics that get Go Human Rights in the door in the first place. According to one advocate for Go Human Rights,

to be accepted as part of diplomats’ world… you need to demonstrate two things: i) that you understand the sensitivity linked to circulation of information and the need for discretion (i.e. that they can tell you something without fear that it will be leaked and that s/he will be identified as the source of the information), and ii) that you have a sophisticated understanding of where the diplomat speaks from and that you show a capacity to put yourself in his/her shoes and are able to comprehend the rationale behind his state policy/position.

But, at the same time, advocates must establish that they have authority on issues related to Country X. As the advocate elaborated, this requires a delicate “balance between showing familiarity (which means putting yourself at the same level as the person you speak with) and displaying a professional attitude (obviously too much familiarity is counter-productive).”

Go Human Rights’ male advocate in Geneva has found it easy enough to access the male-dominated diplomatic networks as they are of similar backgrounds (Western, in their 30s, with training in international relations, often from the same universities). Over the years, he has developed strategies to access the elites. For example, there had been an unwritten rule that diplomats wore suits and ties while NGO representatives wore suits without ties; he and several colleagues subverted this differentiation by putting on ties. He also explained that he started using the informal form of “you” instead of the formal form when speaking French. The similarities that he has with the diplomatic corps and these tactics helped establish rapport (what theorists call homosociality).

We observed that the mostly women advocates at Go Human Rights have had to tread a fine line to navigate the male-dominated diplomatic venues, adopting their own kind of gendered strategic essentialism. Most adopt a slightly more casual, feminine version of the diplomat dress code, with the specific audience determining whether this might mean pants suits, skirts, or a dress. In our observation, some of those who are younger sometimes play up their femininity a little more in dress and affectations to get heard, while others play down their femininity to increase their authority or to counter accusations that women use their femininity to get ahead. This use of femininity, of course, is only part of how women advocates get heard at the UN, but it is an important part of how they navigate the gendered “informal ‘rules of the game’” (Krook and Mackay 2011: 1).

Despite all of Go Human Rights’ efforts, there were some states that were unwilling to meet with Go Human Rights. In this case, Go Human Rights tried to arrange multilateral meetings, sometimes regional groupings, other times using the members of their network. The benefit of these larger meetings is that the NGO representatives are less constrained by their own government’s agenda. Their impact then is less direct, but perhaps more influential in the long run as Go Human Rights can cast themselves as a kind of think tank providing background research. They can also prompt these groups to lobby their allies, who are unwilling to communicate with NGOs.

Permanent missions which did not want to meet with Go Human Rights had different reasons. Because some states wanted to maintain a mutually supportive relationship with Country X, they indicated that they could not change their vote for the Resolution Y and may not want to when they could. Due to a different understanding of human rights, others said that they did not see any human rights violations by the government of Country X, and therefore, did not see a need for action. And still others questioned the legitimation and relevance of country-specific human rights resolutions by the UN, since those resolutions violate a state’s sovereignty. (A few permanent missions appeared to lack any working communication system: even the official phone numbers did not work.)

Discussion: Resistance, Results, and Learning Lessons

All along, Country X was engaging in its own advocacy against the resolution. As far as the staff knew, Country X also lobbies member states, especially swing states but also some of the strong supporters of the resolution, through bilateral meetings, trying persuade them to oppose the resolution or not to vote at all. There was the suspicion that Country X was offering financial incentives, such as infrastructural projects (such as to build a school or hospital) to poor countries to change their votes. Country X also tries its own storytelling. It creates opportunities for selected observers to come on junkets to observe carefully crafted evidence of their improvements on human rights. When the resolution is discussed in the Third Committee and the UNGA, Country X denies allegations of systemic human rights violations, claiming that allegations are fabrications of the West and their allies. Other countries seen as having significant human rights problems then also critique the resolution as politicized and as a distraction from Country X’s accomplishments.

In the year of the case study, the lobbying for the resolution on Country X was more effective than Country X’s effort against the resolution’s passing in the UNGA. The resolution that Go Human Rights advocated was adopted by the UNGA and its Third Committee within its usual vote margins. With their pressure, what swing states said behind closed doors translated into public support of the resolution. They used a version of Keck and Sikkink’s (1999) boomerang, even as the member states used were more diverse than the usual players, but without the public naming and shaming. Go Human Rights saw other indirect benefits of the campaign that strengthened the transnational advocacy network. Activists reported that the campaign also served to strengthen Go Human Rights' relationship with a range of member states and other civil society actors. Activities improved Go Human Rights’ credibility as a trusted source of information and broker of conciliatory approaches to challenging human rights issues in Country X.

Over the course of the next year, the network decided to expand its membership, growing by 50% in number of member organizations. Following some intense discussions, members of Go Human Rights decision also deepen and formalize the connections between the organizations. Based on a survey at the second meeting, the central office understood a need to increase communication and transparency in order to foster collaboration. The network also decided to get involved in supporting the work of a wider range of human rights mechanisms and processes as another way to build relationships and leverage their knowledge.

Working toward these goals led them to their campaign for next year’s Third Committee and UNGA resolution, a modification of the previous one. As with most human rights organizations, they were worried about the “vacuum given theUSA's lack of leadership on human rights" following the election of President Donald Trump, and what appears to be an increasingly multipolar world with the strong presence of many countries not committed to human rights. As Julie Mertus (2008) noted a decade ago, the USA’s stance on human rights has always been driven by foreign policy concerns, and human rights standards have rarely been applied to the USA, but the Trump administration has created a situation in which human rights advocates have to go around the USA, or at least the executive. (This was made more evident when the USA pulled out of the HRC in June of 2018).

As a result, Go Human Rights upped their advocacy game. The central office was even more strategic. They kept in closer communication with the members of the network. Identifying approximately a dozen swing states, the staff began collecting more specific information, focusing not just on their target member state’s relationship with Country X but also on the individuals involved. They considered which human rights violations to prioritize in their advocacy efforts with different member states. They produced more factsheets on Country X’s human rights violations, using data to counter Country X’s claims that the human rights situation had improved significantly because of some legislation passed right before the vote in the UN. Focusing their resources, they made only one capital visit which coincided with a trip held in that capital. They live tweeted during this next year’s discussion of the resolution in the Third Committee, giving an account of which countries were defending Country X. Perhaps even more so than in the previous year, they held their strategies close to the vest to not reveal just how strategic they are and politicize the resolution any more than it already is. Like last year, the vote passed in the Third Committee and the UNGA, with a similar number of votes.

Concluding Remarks

In this article, we contribute to the theory on the influence of NGO and their networks on human rights advocacy through intergovernmental organization resolutions, what some have called the “third UN.” We confirm the common wisdom about the importance of the use of networks to overcome formal obstacles to access, even as commitments to human rights appear to be in decline globally. We also find that informal, indirect consultative status can be achieved by establishing informal relationships with key diplomats and missions and casting oneself as an informed broker of information. We find that human rights framing is part of the process but, especially in this new era, persuading swing states may be less about framing in human rights language than personal touches in maintaining relationships with diplomats where states mostly need to be pushed to honor their espoused commitments to human rights. Bringing informal dynamics to the forefront also raises questions about gender, giving the different gendered makeup of intergovernmental organizations such as the UN and human rights advocates. We recommend more research into these informal campaign tactics that often happen behind closed doors because this lobbying is essential to understanding the influence of the “third UN.” We hold that scholarship should not ignore informal ties and strategies even if they are not directly observable.


  1. 1.

    Note that advocates, especially American-based ones, tend to resist this word because it has a specific legal meaning. We use it here in the broader, colloquial meaning of seeking to influence officials on an issue.

  2. 2.

    The resolution was about human rights in the country in general, not specific to women or minority groups.

  3. 3.

    Our research method was a mix of participant observation in the campaign and review of confidential reports to the network’s donors, with follow-up semi-structured interviews with the advocacy staff, giving access to much of their campaign strategy. Because some of the staff is not located in New York City, some interviews were conducted electronically.

  4. 4.

    The HRC passes its own human rights resolutions, most of which are thematic, but some are country-specific (Piccone and McMillen 2016). HRC mechanisms include the Universal Periodic Review (in which all member states are peer reviewed every four and half years), establishing Special Procedures (which have specific mandates to monitor human rights within one country or on a specific theme), commissions of inquiry (new mechanisms similar to the special procedures but more limited in scope and timeframe), and Special Sessions of the Human Rights Council. HRC resolutions are adopted either by the consensus of all 47 member states or by vote.

  5. 5.

    Article 71 of the UN Charter (1945) allows NGOs to interact with the UN on social, economic, and cultural issues through the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Consultative status grants access to ECOSOC as well as to many of the UN’s subsidiary bodies (the various human rights mechanisms of the United Nations, ad hoc processes on small arms, and special events organized by the President of the UNGA) (Montagna 2017).

  6. 6.

    As recognized by the UN (UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service 2007: 52), “NGOs can be found across the UN system, speaking to governments, serving on panels, holding briefings, forming issue caucuses, offering technical expertise, advocating on the national level, and implementing UN-related projects. NGO involvement varies across different subjects, bodies, and processes, depending to some degree on the momentum of civil society activism outside the United Nations.” Over the last decade, the UN has also created more spaces for explicit dialogue, with the “introduction of innovative meeting formats that enlarge the scope of participation, such as hearings, multi-stakeholder dialogues, and roundtables where NGOs and governments sit side by side and present their views to each other” as well as “online consultations” (UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service 2007: x).

  7. 7.

    Somerville and Aroussi (2009) make the claim about gender for explicitly gendered issues.

  8. 8.

    There is relatively little public information about this, but it is obvious when one is at the UN. More than four of five US career diplomats are white and three out of five are male; 5.4% of career diplomats are black, 6.9% are Asian, and 5.6% are Hispanic (Pickering and Perkins 2015; Kralev 2016).

  9. 9.

    The effect of telling a personal story in society can be seen in examples like Malala Yousafzai, who is an activist for female education and the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate, who was a victim of oppression against women in Pakistan. Another example is Somaly Mam, who is a Cambodian anti-trafficking advocate who focuses primarily on sex trafficking, where she was also a victim herself. Another former victim, Waris Dirie, works constantly against female genital mutilation as UN ambassador. The impact of people who tell their story helps to legitimize the use of testimonial information.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Political ScienceBrooklyn College, City University of New YorkBrooklynUSA

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