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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change
Thomas Risse, Stephen C Ropp & Kathryn Sikkink eds.,

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
318pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 37.50/$59.95; ISBN 0-521-65093-3. Pb.: 13.95/$22.95; ISBN 0-521-65882-9.



This book forms part of a series of studies in international relations from the Cambridge University Press. It addresses questions of fundamental concern to both the law and social sciences regarding the potential for norms and ideas to influence the behaviour of states and individuals.

The opening chapter by Risse and Sikkink proposes a "spiral model" of "human rights change". I admit to sharing the scepticism for theoretical models as referred to by Risse and Ropp in the concluding chapter. I have particular reservations about Risse and Sikkink 's "spiral model" of human rights change. While the model appears simplistic in its conception, its description in the opening chapter is unnecessarily complex.

However, in its application in the empirical case studies covering eleven countries the model is relatively successful in addressing a key question, namely, what accounts for the variation in the degree to which human rights norms are implemented in various states? While the five phases of change, from "repression" to "rule consistent behaviour" proposed in the model are not borne out by all of the country studies, the studies do provide a wealth of fascinating comparative empirical data regarding the strategies and the actors which have led to sustained improvement in the human rights situation in a wide range of cultural, economic and political contexts.

Set within the context of what Risse and Sikkink describe as "world time" and the "cascade of norms", the country studies in this book provide a useful insight into the impact of developing international human rights norms and into the degree of success of the strategies for change adopted by domestic human rights activists, western governments and international human rights networks. The case studies regarding Chile and South Africa, in particular, demonstrate the extent to which the situation in those countries in the early 1970s contributed to the formation and the proliferation of what is described as "international human rights networks". The book concludes with ten lessons for human rights practitioners which have resonance for all those with an interest in this field.


Denise Magill
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission




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