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  • Mobilizing Principles: The Role of Transnational Activists in Promoting Human Rights Principles*
  • Susan D. Burgerman (bio)

I. Introduction

During the 1980s, an estimated 70,000 Salvadoran civilians were killed, abducted, or tortured by state security forces or paramilitary organizations. Across the border in Guatemala, between 1978 and 1989 the government was responsible for the death or disappearance of over 100,000 civilians, mainly indigenous peasants, while approximately 450 rural villages were razed by the armed forces. 1 In response to these atrocities, a network of internationally based nonstate actors targeted the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala. Diplomatic pressure was brought to bear by the United States and European governments, and by the United Nations and the Organization of American States, largely due to activists’ mobilizational efforts. Until the 1990s, both the Salvadoran and Guatemalan states, whether under military or civilian rule, were able to ignore this pressure and [End Page 905] continue violating international human rights law, in part because the human rights system lacked strong implementation or enforcement mechanisms.

With the shift in regional strategic interests following the end of the Cold War, peace talks in both cases resulted in the deployment of UN human rights missions that enabled international observers to operate freely on Salvadoran (ONUSAL) and Guatemalan (MINUGUA) national territory over a period of several years. 2 The missions have established or strengthened institutions that undergird the rule of law, and have drafted reforms to state judicial and coercive institutions and overseen their implementation to ensure long-term conformity with international principles of human rights. As a result, respect for the rights of the person is now becoming the norm in state-society relations in these countries. This article seeks to explain why states did ultimately cooperate to impose human rights reforms in these countries despite the lack of an apparent material incentive to cooperate, and to develop a framework detailing the circumstances under which transnational human rights activism can lead to change in state policy or behavior.

Internationally based nongovernmental and occasionally governmental actors, during the period of conflict, installed themselves as quasi-members of the domestic political systems, providing vulnerable populations with sources of protection alternative to those of the state itself. These intersecting levels of advocacy formed a transnational human rights network, which over time gained access to global and regional institutional channels. Human rights activists played a critical role in placing these two cases on the international agenda, in providing incentives for other states to cooperate with the human rights protection regime, and in promoting compliance on the part of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments with human rights principles.

An analysis of the activities of transnational advocates is necessary to explain cooperation with the international human rights regime. Regimes of a moral or ethical nature do not conform to a model of cooperation based on functional contracts among states, such as would explain cooperation with trade or telecommunications regimes. Moral regimes are not self-enforcing, are not amenable to strategies based on reciprocity, and offer no intrinsic material incentives for cooperative behavior. To explain the establishment and institutionalization of a human rights regime, the explanation must be able both to cross national boundaries and to recognize the [End Page 906] centrality of nonstate actors who operate transnationally. In fact, in the human rights issue area, nongovernmental organizations and “transnational moral entrepreneurs” 3 are often the central unit of analysis. This is not to the exclusion of the state. Human rights policy is made by the state. States are the accountable parties in cases of human rights violations, and positive change in violator state behavior rarely occurs absent serious, consistent pressure from cooperating states. Viewing the question from the perspective of international systems theories, human rights activism was a constant throughout this period and therefore should not be useful in explaining change at the level of state behavior. Nonetheless, by elevating nonstate actors this research would open up the state to examine how actors both within and outside of the political system, mobilized around moral issues, do indeed influence policy and certainly shaped the nature of the outcome.

This article offers a framework to explain the circumstances under which transnational network activism can...

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pp. 905-923
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