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Reviewed by:
  • Human Rights Matters: Local Politics and National Human Rights Institutions
  • Mahmood Monshipouri (bio)
Julie A. Mertus, Human Rights Matters: Local Politics and National Human Rights Institutions (Stanford Univ. Press, 2009), 210 pages, plus index, ISBN 9780804760942.

The embryonic attempts at constructing human rights norms following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) were largely influenced by a global movement. As a result, the role of local context in the accommodation of international norms has been conspicuously absent and even largely marginalized. Although human rights were frequently invoked in the politics of many societies, this trend failed to automatically lead to the protection of human rights for many people around the world. Thus, some analysts shifted their attention to a local discourse about ethics and social justice, while attempting to contextualize and interpret human rights within a local context.1 More recently, some scholars have shown how national actors and non-governmental organizations can be instrumental in defending and promoting human rights.

In Human Rights Matters, Julie Mertus adopts a constructivist view to illustrate the way in which stakeholder participation in local contexts can ensure that local organizations are responsive to community interests and values, while remaining open and inclusive. Mertus seeks to deconstruct the link between the local narrative and the work of national human rights institutions (NHRIs), arguing that the “promotion and protection of human rights rely less on international efforts and more on domestic action.”2 In the 1980s, Mertus asserts, NHRIs became “the chosen tool for states seeking to transition from authoritarian and other nondemocratic governments to fully participatory democracies.”3 Since the post-Cold War era, NHRIs have provided practical links between international standards and their concrete applications, while encountering both domestic and international limitations.

Several issues seem to have motivated this project, including the influence of local context on the operation of NHRIs and how the effectiveness of these NHRIs is linked to the political context of the country. The project’s method is based on a comparative analysis, and Mertus primarily relies upon, interviews with the members of national human rights institutions in five European countries: Denmark, Northern Ireland, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Germany, and the Czech Republic. The logic of the book’s comparisons [End Page 830] is based on geographical factors (Europe), the nature of the political sphere (mature and transitional democracies), and the NHRI type (ombudsman and commission/committee). To explain the rationale behind case selection, the author underscores the importance of the unique insight of each case into the power of local politics to shape human rights as well as the the localization of international human rights norms.4 It is not clear to this reviewer, however, why France—a country whose leaders claim to have vigorously pursued their national motto of liberty, equality, and fraternity while also experiencing many problems with its immigrant population—has been excluded from this book.5 The inclusion of France in this selection could have further supported the book’s central message by providing an example of a mature democracy.6

Mertus argues that Denmark plays an important leadership role in NHRI advocacy. The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) exposes an example of both successes and limitations of such institutions. Many individual staff members of the DIHR must act pragmatically and strategically, opting for language more familiar to the Danish public such as “nondiscrimination” instead of “human rights.” This is understandable given that their efforts largely depend on the nation’s dominant political and cultural dynamics, which are not always favorable to the implementation of international human rights norms. It is not clear how the DIHR has helped Danish society come to grips with the reality of integrating diasporic communities into its communal membership—a claim certain to be well received among immigrant communities.7

Northern Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina represent the significance of NHRIs in states emerging from conflict. The comparison between the two, as Mertus points out, is telling: “the Bosnian system was imposed entirely by outsiders, and the Northern Ireland institution was more locally conceived and thus enjoys more local legitimacy.”8 Created by the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) faces demands unique to a...


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