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Transnational Human Rights Networks: Significance and Challenges  

Hans Peter Schmitz

Transnational human rights networks refer to a form of cross-border collective action that seeks to promote compliance with universally accepted norms. Principled transnational activism began to draw sustained scholarly attention after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the creation of a new type of information-driven and impartial transnational activism, embodied in organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Scholarship on transnational human rights networks emerged during the 1990s within the subfield of International Relations and as a challenge to the state-centric and materialist bias of the field. In their 1998 book Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink describe the key role that transnational human rights groups play in global affairs. Focusing on rights-based activism, Keck and Sikkink show how transnational advocacy networks (TANs) can influence domestic politics. The concept of TANs is dominated by the purposeful activism of nongovernmental organizations and driven by shared principles, not professional standards. A number of studies have challenged the core assumptions about the effectiveness of principled human rights activism, arguing that international support plays no significant role compared to the autonomous efforts of domestic activists. One way to overcome these challenges and criticisms is for the transnational activist sector, as well as other types of non-state actors, to move beyond the principles/interests dichotomy and take a closer look at the internal dynamics of participant NGOs.