The (co)evolution of human rights advocacy: Understanding human rights issue emergence over time

Date01 September 2019
Published date01 September 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Cooperation and Conflict
2019, Vol. 54(3) 313 –334
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0010836718808315
The (co)evolution of
human rights advocacy:
Understanding human rights
issue emergence over time
Baekkwan Park, Amanda Murdie
and David R Davis
How does the discussion of human rights issues change over time? Without advocates adopting
a human rights issue in the first place, international ‘shaming’ cannot occur. In this article, we
examine how human rights discussions converge and diverge around new frames and new issues
over time. Human rights norms do not evolve alone; their prevalence, framing, and focus are all
dependent on how they relate to other norms in the advocacy community. Drawing on over
30,000 documents from dozens of human rights organizations from 1990 to 2011, we provide
a temporal overview and visualization of the ebb and flow of human rights issues. Using our
new dataset and state-of-the-art methods from computer science, our approach allows us to
quantitatively examine (a) how new issues emerge in the advocacy network, (b) the relationship
of these new issues to extant human rights advocacy and information, and (c) how the framing
and specificity of these issues change over time. By focusing on the process by which a new issue
gets incorporated into the work of advocates, we provide an empirical assessment of the first
step in the causal process connecting shaming to improvement in human rights practices.
Framing, human rights, issue emergence, norm life cycle, shaming
Since the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) over 70 years
ago, advocates have worked to expand the focus of human rights. New human rights
issues have risen to prominence and the focus on others has sometimes waned. For
instance, new rights claims have been advanced for issues such as lesbian, gay, bisexual,
and transgender (LGBT) rights, rights of the disabled, the right to access to information,
Corresponding author:
Amanda Murdie, University of Georgia (UGA), 327 Candler Hall, Athens, GA 30602, USA.
808315CAC0010.1177/0010836718808315Cooperation and ConflictPark et al.
314 Cooperation and Conflict 54(3)
and new sources of human rights abuses such as drone warfare, climate change, and new
government techniques for closing space for civil society have become highly visible.
The focus on other issues, such as the isolation of HIV positive individuals, the use of
landmines, or footbinding, have ebbed as organizations have reached almost complete
advocacy success (Haddad, 2013). As Lauren (2011) remarked,
transformations have occurred with the language, definitions, and meanings of human rights
themselves … they have been named and framed in different ways, debated, contested, refracted
through many lenses … [there] never have been plain human rights, static and settled once and
for all (313).
How does the discussion of human rights issues change over time? The evolution of
human rights issues is fundamental to our understanding of when and how human rights
improve in practice (Hill and Jones, 2014; Poe and Tate, 1994; Risse and Sikkink, 1999),
and central to our understanding of the life cycle of international norms and the setting
of the advocacy agenda (Bob, 2005; Carpenter, 2007, 2014; Finnemore and Sikkink,
1998). Without a human rights issue being raised by advocates in the human rights com-
munity, savvy state and non-state actors will continue their repressive practices. Without
adopting the issue in the first place, international ‘naming and shaming’ or ‘shaming and
blaming’ cannot occur.1 And, without naming and shaming actors for their abuses, human
rights improvement may not happen. Mobilization and socialization about a specific
abuse depend first on the issue’s adoption and articulation by entrepreneurial activists.
Recently there has been increased interest in understanding why human rights advo-
cates, states, and organizations choose the issues they do (Bob, 2005; Carpenter, 2007,
2014; Hendrix and Wong, 2014; Ron et al., 2005). These studies have employed a variety
of approaches including detailed qualitative case studies, quantitative methods, focus
groups, and network analysis. As a whole, this literature has found that advocates often
focus on issues involving bodily harm and abuses that fit neatly within the existing advo-
cacy agenda. Some states, especially those that are geo-politically important, are also
more likely to receive attention from international advocates. Scholars in this area have
also found that the structure of interactions between advocacy actors matters for issue
adoption. To the best of our knowledge, however, studies in this vein have not quantita-
tively examined changes in the language that human rights advocates employ over long
periods of time.
A number of scholars have begun to use advanced quantitative text analysis tech-
niques to study changes in available information about human rights abuses, including
reports by international organizations), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and
governments (Bagozzi and Berliner, 2018; Fariss, 2014; Powers, 2017). These studies
have helped the scholarly community explore numerous questions including how
human rights standards of accountability have changed as more information on abuses
has become available and how changing geo-political concerns have, at times, colored
the information reported by various organizations (Bagozzi and Berliner, 2018; Fariss,
In this article, we draw on insights from both of these literatures to examine how
human rights advocacy discussions converge and diverge around new frames and new

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