Transnational advocacy and domestic law: International NGOs and the design of freedom of information laws


Can international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) influence domestic policy? This paper offers new quantitative evidence of the impact of INGOs in one specific policy area—Freedom of Information (FOI) laws—as well as highlighting an under-studied mechanism of INGO influence on the design of domestic laws. I test this argument by examining the effect of legal analyses of draft FOI legislation published by the INGO Article 19. These analyses provide expert legal assessments and make normative evaluations—both information politics and symbolic politics. I find that in countries in which Article 19 conducted legal analyses, the design of the subsequently passed FOI laws was significantly stronger than in countries that were not subject to such analyses. I demonstrate that this finding is not an artifact of Article 19’s selection process. I also present suggestive evidence that highlights symbolic politics, not information politics, as the more salient mechanism. Finally, I examine the process of FOI drafting and adoption in Serbia to illustrate the argument and specific mechanisms at work.

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  1. 1.

    As in True and Mintrom (2001) and Busby (2010).

  2. 2.

    An extensive literature has focused on legal translation as the way in which foreign legal forms or standards are reinterpreted to fit new domestic contexts (see, among many others, Merry (2006), Dezalay and Garth (2002), Langer (2004), Maman (2006)). In this paper I use the term “translation” instead to mean the extent to which domestic laws either meet or fail to meet international standards and best practices, conceptualizing legal design on a single “weak-strong” dimension for the purposes of simplicity.

  3. 3.

    A full list of all 61 indicators and the number of points associated with each is available in the Online Appendix, available on this journal’s website and the author’s website.

  4. 4.

    I also exclude two analyses published so shortly before passage that it is doubtful that they can be considered eligible to have had an impact: One analysis in Slovakia, published 2 days before passage, and one analysis (out of four total) in Macedonia, published 15 days before passage. Main results are robust to including these, however (full results in the Online Appendix). Main results are also robust to excluding two analyses (one in Croatia and one in Serbia) that were of civil society draft laws rather than of government drafts (full results in the Online Appendix).

  5. 5.

    Results in the Online Appendix show that the main findings are robust to using the larger dataset of all FOI laws, including those passed before 1999. In both the full and limited samples of FOI laws, the Cook Islands, Kosovo, and Taiwan are dropped due to missing data on most independent variables.

  6. 6.

    Some FOI laws have also been amended after original passage, sometimes in positive and sometimes in negative ways with regard to international standards. The processes by which such amendments are proposed, the ways in which different domestic and international actors respond to them, and whether or not they are ultimately successful, are complex and outside the scope of the present study. Every RTI Rating included in this analysis was coded using the text of the FOI law as originally passed, before such amendments, except in eight cases. The Online Appendix discusses and addresses potential complications for the analysis resulting from these cases. The main results are robust to several possible alternative approaches.

  7. 7.

    A robustness check in the Online Appendix uses the untransformed year instead.

  8. 8.

    For six small countries (Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Belize and Iceland are not included in the main post-1998 dataset) with missing Polity data, I imputed values based on the Freedom House democracy measure. Results are robust to exclusion of these observations, or to use of the Freedom House democracy measure instead of Polity2 (see Online Appendix).

  9. 9.

    Email communication, November 12, 2012.

  10. 10.

    Another possibility, in which local civil society or legislators seek out Article 19’s involvement rather than Article 19 selecting countries to intervene, is similar in terms of the implied direction of bias. Insofar as such local decisions to seek international expertise are non-random, they should be more likely where local actors are concerned that the legislation being drafted is problematic. I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  11. 11.

    Interview 2, Belgrade, Serbia, May 20, 2013, YUCOM (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights). Interview 3, Belgrade, Serbia, May 20, 2013, YUCOM (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights). Interview 4, Email, June 2, 2013, Transparency Serbia. See also Article 19 Annual Reports (2003a, p. 15; 2004, p. 14).

  12. 12.

    Interview 2, Belgrade, Serbia, May 20, 2013, YUCOM (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights).

  13. 13.

    Interview 1, Belgrade, Serbia, May 20, 2013, Commission for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. Interview 2, Belgrade, Serbia, May 20, 2013, YUCOM (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights).

  14. 14.

    All quotes from parliamentary transcripts have been translated from the original Serbian.

  15. 15.

    This publication was endorsed in 2000 by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

  16. 16.

    Interview 2, Belgrade, Serbia, May 20, 2013, YUCOM (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights).

  17. 17.

    Interview 2, Belgrade, Serbia, May 20, 2013, YUCOM (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights).

  18. 18.

    Interview 4, Email, June 2, 2013, Transparency Serbia.

  19. 19.


  20. 20.


  21. 21.



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The author wishes to thank Katherine Banks, Tanja Börzel, James Caporaso, Kendra Dupuy, Aseem Prakash, Thomas Risse, Kathryn Sikkink, Joannie Tremblay-Boire, and the editor and anonymous referees for helpful feedback and comments. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2012 International Studies Association Annual Convention in San Diego, CA. This article results in part from research conducted at the Kolleg-Forschergruppe (KFG) “The Transformative Power of Europe” hosted at the Freie Universität Berlin, as well as from research supported by the University of Washington European Union Center of Excellence.

Ethical Statement


This study was supported by the University of Washington European Union Center of Excellence, and the Kolleg-Forschergruppe (KFG) “The Transformative Power of Europe” hosted at Freie Universität Berlin.

Interviews were conducted according to Exempt Status Determination #42082, University of Washington Human Subjects Division.

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The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Daniel Berliner.

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Berliner, D. Transnational advocacy and domestic law: International NGOs and the design of freedom of information laws. Rev Int Organ 11, 121–144 (2016).

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  • International NGOs
  • Transnational advocacy
  • Freedom of information
  • Transparency
  • Policy design