Many global governance challenges can also be understood as human rights challenges. Climate change affects the right to food, adequate housing, and health. War and counterterrorism threaten absolute rights, such as the right not to be tortured. The worldwide enjoyment of human rights remains a distant goal despite an array of international treaties and global institutions created to promote, monitor, and enforce them. There is, in short, a compliance gap.
Non-compliance is not the only obstacle. Human rights were originally codified to regulate state conduct, but today non-state actors such as international organizations, multinational corporations, and transnational NGOs have unprecedented influence on individual lives. State and non-state actors interpret, adapt, refine, and review human rights norms continuously. While this is welcome, challenges to core features of the universal human rights regime are on the rise.
At GPPi, we consider human rights pertinent to global governance across the board. With our research, consulting and debate, we seek to contribute to effective human rights policies that foster international standards and concretely help individuals at risk.
Human Rights Compliance
What works to close the gap between the commitment to international human rights treaties and domestic compliance? We study the effect of transnational efforts to bridge that gap, including sanctions, diplomacy and technical cooperation. Our studies tell us that the European Union – a self-declared normative power – promises more than it delivers on human rights. In particular, we have documented the sobering impact of the EU’s quiet diplomacy on human rights in China.
We argue that public condemnation and incentives are adequate responses to powerful norm violators, whereas technical assistance is a promising tool when states, particularly those in fragile contexts, lack the ability to comply. We worked with the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development on how to promote children’s right to protection from violence. In another five-year research project, we study foreign policy efforts and court rulings that may lead to early releases of political prisoners. We are developing a database on 27 countries with a consistently high occurrence of political imprisonment and systematizing information on thousands of individual cases from 2001 to 2010.
GPPi studies rising powers because a global order without adequate representation is neither fair nor sustainable. Newly powerful states advance their own ideas, and rightly so. In our work on the evolution of R2P, we find that contestation productively shapes evolving global norms. With regard to long codified norms, however, contestation is more worrisome. Authoritarian powers increasingly challenge universal human rights. Russia, for instance, claims that “traditional values of humankind” trump freedom from discrimination. Such norm contestation deserves attention because it foreshadows the human rights regime’s possible future. By analyzing 430 official UN records in the period 2000-2010, we established that China does not explicitly reject the notion of international human rights, but it contests their implications, including country-specific monitoring – a core feature of the UN human rights system. Democratic states contest human rights norms too. The US and the UK have led a serious setback in the prohibition of torture. We have argued that their impunity for egregious crimes must be overcome and have also called on Germany to put its foreign intelligence services on a tighter leash.
Refuge and Individuals at Risk
Human rights policy seeks to concretely impact the lives of individuals at risk. One way of doing so is by protecting those fleeing from human rights abuse. But the rise of forced displacement poses a serious challenge to international legal and policy responses in refugee protection. How can lawmakers and policy actors improve access to asylum and allocate responsibility in a fair manner? How can they foster compliance and build capacity for refugee protection?
Our research shows that courts in EU member states have different approaches to determining what qualifies as adequate protection in the home country, despite having harmonized standards on paper. We have also studied how the top EU court applies the international definition of a refugee. We have taken stock of the challenges, achievements and failures of asylum law and policy in the EU and argued for a new system of EU-wide responsibility sharing for refugees.
UN mechanisms regarding individual cases are another way of protecting people at risk. In collaboration with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, we are currently studying the impact of UN communications on human rights activists.
Funding & Clients
In addition to a five-year grant from the Volkswagen Foundation as well as a grant from the Mercator Foundation, our work on human rights has been supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. For past and current doctoral projects, we have received funding from the Villigst Foundation and the German National Academic Foundation. We are also engaged in advisory work for the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as the German Federal Foreign Office.
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