Foreign Policy and Human Rights Advocacy: An Exercise in Measurement and Explanation


This article addresses three questions: How can we define and measure what constitutes a foreign policy in human rights? How is it possible to explain both the activism of a state and its ideological orientation in the international promotion of human rights? What is the empirical evidence found when we try to answer these questions in intermediate states? Research done on four cases (Argentina, Australia, Brazil and South Africa) suggests a correlation between domestic efforts in the promotion of human rights and international advocacy. It also shows that the greater the power of intermediate states, the greater their activism in human rights. Further, as development grows states show less support for economic, social and cultural rights. Last, the strategic relation with the USA shapes how states vote regarding human rights violators states.

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  1. 1.

    A HRFP can be done unilaterally, as when the USA demands higher levels of compliance with human rights to recipient states, or multilateral, such as a UN Council of Human Rights exhortation to a particular state to comply with certain rights. The means available to pursue a HRFP may also vary. At one extreme, a HRFP can be advanced through diplomacy and international law. At the other end, and under certain circumstances, human rights can be enforced through the use of military force.

  2. 2.

    The level of adherence to international human rights treaties has been calculated taking into account the signing and ratification of treaties (included in the database of the Human Rights Library of the University of Minnesota) that Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and South Africa conducted between 2003 and 2010. In each year under study, each country was assigned a value of 1 (one) to each treaty signed plus a value of 1 (one) it the treaty was then ratified. This sum was then divided by the number of international treaties open for signature for each state during that year multiplied by 2.The formula used was:

    $$ {\lambda_{it }}=\frac{{{F_{it }}+{R_{it }}}}{{{T_{it }}+2}} $$

    where λ is the ratio of ratification and signing of international human rights treaties, F is the number of international human rights treaties that the country i has signed up to the year t, R the number of treaties ratified, and T the number of international human rights treaties open for signature.

  3. 3.

    We took into account the discussions on all topics covered. The number of participations of each country in the sessions was divided by the number of instances in which countries could make comments, observations or questions. In this way, we got the participation ratio, where higher ratios represent increased activity of the country within the Council's activities.

  4. 4.

    To calculate the level of activity of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and South Africa in the presentation or sponsorship of projects, we proceeded to give a score of 2 (two) for each project presented and a score of 1 (one) per each project sponsored, being the submission of a project more activism than sponsor an already presented project. The total score received by each country in each Commission or Council meeting was divided by the total number of projects submitted in the same session to reach the ratio of participation in projects within the Commission and the Council.

  5. 5.

    Obtaining data on the weight of human rights in international cooperation between 2003 and 2010 of the cases under study was based on information provided by the reports of the Argentine Fund for Horizontal Cooperation (FO.AR) in the case of Argentina, and the AidData database for the cases of Australia, Brazil and South Africa. It should be noted that obtaining this data presents major obstacles to perform large N comparative studies, especially when it is about analyzing intermediate countries that do not always provide this information in a consistent manner. Of all the projects offered by each country and each year, we classified those human rights projects. We considered a project as a human rights project when its title or description referred to human rights, discrimination, truth and justice, minority or vulnerable groups, conflict prevention, peace building or support to refugees abroad. Once classified, we proceeded to calculate the ratio of human rights projects per year (number of human rights projects divided by the total of projects offered each year).

  6. 6.

    Data on number of resolutions in favor in relation of total decisions made by one country in each year were extracted from the UNHCR Statistical Yearbook of each year within the period 2003–2010. Formally, the refugee acceptance rate was calculated as follows:

    $$ \mathrm{Re}{{\mathrm{f}}_{it }}=\frac{{{A_{it }}}}{{{D_{it }}}} $$

    where A refers to the number of people with refugee status accepted for country i in year t, and D the number of decisions taken by the country i at t, both favorable or negative.

  7. 7.

    The Human Rights Library’s database at the University of Minnesota provides data of the date of signature and ratification of 68 international and 13 regional (nine of America and four from Africa) treaties of human rights.

  8. 8.

    This database has information until 2007, so data will be used only for the period 2003–2007. The data for 3 years will not be a major problem for the present analysis, as the first 5 years of the period analyzed show some stability in the relative power because power shifts in the international system occurs in longer periods of time. For this reason, the last 3 years will be taken as a replica of the last year for which data are available.

  9. 9.

    This variable describes the ratio of human rights organizations from a specific country that have some sort of status at the UN in relation to the total of CSOs with some sort of status from that same country in each of the years between 2003 and 2010. In formal terms, if a country has a number N of CSOs registered in the UN, and n of them are CSOs of human rights, then the ratio of CSOs on human rights would be n/N, where n ≤ N. To calculate this variable, all CSOs with some sort of consultative status in the UN system and based in Argentina, Australia, Brazil and South Africa were categorized according to their main action area. If the mission of the organization refers to human rights as a core activity, it was classified as a CSO on human rights. Human rights as a main activity was understood as if the mission, vision or main activities mentioned the promotion, protection and/or dissemination of human rights, minority, indigenous peoples, gender or children rights, combating racism, xenophobia, and/or the promotion of cultural rights.

  10. 10.

    The relative amount of resources allocated to human rights programs was calculated by dividing the total resources devoted to human rights programs in a given year and country by the total state expenditure in that year and country. Human rights programs have been classified based on whatever the program specifies its orientation to: (a) disseminate, protect or promote human rights; (b) disseminate, protect, promote the rights of a disadvantaged group; (c) disseminate, protect or promote the quality of life, culture or rights of indigenous peoples; (d) disseminate, protect or promote gender rights or gender equality; (e) combating racism, xenophobia and related actions of discrimination. The search for human rights programs was made from the reports of the National Budget Office in the case of Argentina, the Brazilian Federal Senate website devoted to the Union Budget, the 2011–2012 Commonwealth Budget website on the case of Australia, and the website of the Department of National Treasury of the Republic of South Africa, in all cases for each of the years in the 2003–2010 period.

  11. 11.

    To measure the degree of democracy in the four countries we relied on the Polity IV Democracy Index.

  12. 12.

    To estimate the level of development for the four countries, we used the UNDP’s Human Development Index. We used the World Bank’s database to access the country-year data.

  13. 13.

    Although this observation may seem tautological, it is not. State effort is a domestic variable that has to do with the inward spending that makes a state in human rights programs and is a shortcut to account for how internalized a human rights culture is within the country. Activism is an external variable that has to do with the level of protection and promotion of human rights in international society.


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Correspondence to Federico Merke.

Additional information

The authors thank Christopher Kiessling, Florencia Montal, Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, and three anonymous reviewers for comments on previous drafts of this article.

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Merke, F., Pauselli, G. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Advocacy: An Exercise in Measurement and Explanation. Hum Rights Rev 14, 131–155 (2013).

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  • Foreign policy
  • Human rights advocacy
  • Democracy
  • Development
  • Civil society
  • Power