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From the Boomerang to the Banyan:
The Diffusion of Human Rights Norms Reconsidered
Based on Presentations at (1) the Workshops on Religion and Human Rights
Pragmatism: Promoting Rights across Cultures, Columbia University, New
York, Sept. 24, 2011; (2) Lecture delivered to the Development Roundtable at
the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University,
Washington DC. 13 April 2012; (3) Peace Research Institute, Frankfurt, 3 May
2012, Free University of Berlin, 17 July 2012.
Professor Amitav Acharya
UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance,
American University, Washington, DC.
Three Main Objectives
• To contribute towards a new approach to understanding human
rights norm diffusion in the IR scholarship
– In IR literature, human rights and norm diffusion closely linked, many
scholars straddle both, but
– IR theory has lagged behind actual developments in the diffusion of
human rights norms
– To look beyond the Cold War or early post-Cold War era model of
human rights norm diffusion
• To look beyond the stale ‘universalism versus relativism’ debate in
human rights debates and writings
• To contribute to non-Western IR Theory development: goal here is
not to perpetuate an artificial ‘West versus the Rest’ divide, but to
bridge it in a way that generalizes as much from the norms and
practices of the Rest rather than simply expecting the norms and
practices of the West to apply to the Rest
In Praise of the Boomerang
“Boomerang” and the “Spiral” Models (Keck and Sikkink,
Activists Beyond Borders, Risse, Ropp and Sikkink, The Power
of Human Rights)
• Boomerang: activists link up with transnational human
rights groups and use their influence with their own
national governments and international organizations to
bring pressure to bear on their domestic oppressors.
• Spiral: refines and subsumes the boomerang, a follow-up
stage- governments initially accept human rights norms
for instrumental reasons, but gradually end up
internalizing them due to moral pressure and
accountability politics.
Where are the Natives?
– the literature on human rights has privileged the role
of transnational actors and “paid far less attention to
the local embodiments of human rights norms in the
developing world.” (James Ron, U of Minnestoa,
“Legitimate or Alien”)
– Although in the Boomerang model local groups
initiate “the process, their location, obscure language,
and marginality have limited scholarly inquiry.” (Ron
“Legitimate or Alien”).
– Originally developed within specific context of USLatin America relations
– Popularity in immediate post-Cold War milieu, a
period of ‘end of history’.
Changing Normative Environment
• 9/11 has diminished the moral prestige and leverage of “Western
Powers”, especially the US, for the Boomerangs to travel effectively.
• The rise of the Rest has accelerated since the 1990s. Western
leverage on human rights issues may be diminishing in view of the
growing voice of emerging powers.
• Democratization in non-western societies (Indonesia) means local
actors there have less rationale and need for foreign support.
• The role of social media empowers local actors and permits a more
horizontal mobilization among domestic activists than ever before,
hence there is less need for information boomerangs that travel
Need for revisiting the universalism/relativism debate
Revisiting the
Universalism/Relativism Debate
• whose universalism?
• Narrow concept of human rights: “Islamic,
Confucian, and African societies did not in fact
develop significant bodies of human rights ideas
or practices prior to the twentieth century.”
• Human rights are “equal and inalienable
entitlements of all individuals that may be
exercised against the state and society”, (Jack
Donnelley, The Relative Universality of Human
Rights,” p.284)
Other Human Rights Traditions
• “The idea of human rights as an entitlement of
every human being, with an unqualified universal
scope and highly articulated structure, is really a
recent development; in this demanding form it is
not an ancient idea either in the West or
elsewhere. But there are limited and qualified
defenses of freedom and tolerance, and general
arguments against censorship, that can be found
both in ancient traditions in the West and in
cultures of non-Western societies.” Amartya Sen,
Relativism of Western Universalism
• the so-called universalism is actually a major
example of relativism of sorts.
• By arguing that the valuing of toleration of
personal liberty, and of civil rights is a particular
contribution of Western civilization, Western
advocates of these rights often give ammunition
to the non-Western critics of human rights. The
advocacy of an allegedly "alien” idea in nonWestern societies can indeed look like cultural
imperialism sponsored by the West.” Amartya
Ancient Human Rights?
Ashoka and Kalinga in 261-250 BC
You must attend to this matter. While being completely law-abiding, some
people are imprisoned, treated harshly and even killed without cause so
that many people suffer. Therefore your aim should be to act with
impartiality…See that you do your duty properly… the judicial officers of
the city may strive to do their duty and that the people under them might
not suffer unjust imprisonment or harsh treatment. To achieve this, I will
send out Mahamatras every five years who are not harsh or cruel, but
who are merciful and who can ascertain if the judicial officers have
understood my purpose and are acting according to my
instructions…When these Mahamatras go on tours of inspection each
year, then without neglecting their normal duties, they will ascertain if
judicial officers are acting according to the king's instructions. (Instructions
to judicial officers, Emperor Ashoka, Kalinga Edict, Around 250 BC)
• This is not entitlement, but embodies the idea of protection. Laws of
Manu has more legal flavour.
Alternative Universalism
• “In the Enlightenment meaning universal meant
true for all time and space – the perspective of a
homogenous reality.”
• Rejecting this, Cox advanced an alternative
understanding of universality that would mean
“comprehending and respecting diversity in an
ever changing world”.
• Myself- go a step beyond and add another
dimension: the agency of diverse local actors in
constructing global human rights order.
‘Localization’ and ‘Subsidiarity’
• Whose Ideas Matter? Agency and Power in Asian
Regionalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
• “How Ideas Spread: Whose Norms Matter? Norm
Localization and Institutional Change in Asian
Regionalism”, International Organization, vol. 58,
no.2 (Spring 2004), pp. 239-275.
• “Norm Subsidiarity and Regional Orders:
Sovereignty, Regionalism and Rule Making in the
Third World,” International Studies Quarterly, vol.
55 (2011), pp. 95–123.
L-S Framework
• Norm localization is “the active construction (through
discourse, framing, grafting, and cultural selection) of
foreign ideas by local actors, which results in the
former developing significant congruence with local
beliefs and practices.” Acharya, 2004, p.245
• Norm subsidiarity is “a process whereby local actors
create rules with a view to preserve their autonomy
from dominance, neglect, violation, or abuse by more
powerful central actors.” Acharya, 2011, p.97
Local Responses to Transnational Norms
Transnational Norms
Transnational Norm Entrepreneurs
Local Agents
Norm Displacement*
Dependent variable
Intervening variable
Independent variable
Challenging/resisting of
powerful actors/ideas
Supportive/strengthening of
transnational norms
Subsidiary norms
Local agents (cognitive priors)
L-S Framework (Key Points)
• Both interrogate the universalistic claims of ideas and
norms or at least recognize that many of the ideas and
norms that are supposedly universal are essentially
Western and display a Western bias.
• They call for tempering, if not rejecting, the moral
cosmopolitanism of constructivist approaches to norm
diffusion, whereby good global norms are implicitly
seen as western, and bad local practices non-Western.
• They recognize that many local beliefs and practices
have a robust legitimacy and functionality which
should be recognized and universalized.
L-S Framework (Key Points)
• The agency of local actors, ‘insider proponents’
• The need to build congruence between local norms
(cognitive priors) and outside norms
• Preserve and amplify, rather than supplant, an existing
• Non-adversarial- ‘Shaming’ may not be as effective as
‘saving face’
• Subsidiarity stresses local norm creation and its
universalization, including from regional to global and
on a region-to-region basis
• Recognize that normative change in most cases is
evolutionary, not a one-step transformation
An Alternative Metaphor
• The “early and most influential qualitative
studies [on the spread of human rights] may
have been mistakenly generalized from the
Latin American and Eastern European
experience”, and thus research based on these
frameworks on “Africa, Asia, or the Middle
East may be barking up the wrong theoretical
tree.” Emily Haftner Burton and James Ron
• So what is the right theoretical tree?
What is This?
What is the Banyan?
• “Indian fig tree, Ficus bengalensis, whose branches root
themselves like new trees over a large area. The roots then
give rise to more trunks and branches. Because of this
characteristic and its longevity, this tree is considered
immortal and is an integral part of the myths and legends
of India. Even today, the banyan tree is the focal point of
village life and the village council meets under the shade of
this tree. (
• “As it grows, the banyan tree produces aerial roots that
hang down and take root wherever they touch the ground.
These thick roots actually make the tree appear to have
several trunks.” Nikki Phipps, “Growing a Banyan Tree”.
Found in many parts of the world
Shady, resting point for travelers (local-outside interaction)
Resilient (rarely cut down)
Cultural symbol (festivals, ceremonies, worships)
Social institution (gathering place of diverse communities, dispute
settlement, consensus-making)
• Large canopy spread out in all directions represents universal
nature of human rights
• Aerial roots hanging down from the branches and taking root
illustrates localization (top-down)
• Roots taking hold and supporting the branches and canopy
illustrates subsidiarity (bottom up)
• Overall: an inclusive, two-way process
Human Rights Approach
• An inclusive, rather than adversarial approach. Consultations
• A broader view of human rights(a large canopy for the evolving
international human rights regime. A Banyan has multiple roots,
which collectively support the tree.) Governments consult domestic
and regional groups. Contestations occur, but generally, not fatal.
• Local (domestic, regional) ownership and entrepreneurship. Insider
proponents. (A Banyan Tree shelters outside travelers, but they are
guests not actors, they bring in new ideas, and new incentives, but
it is the locals who buy and use them.)
• Regional mechanisms are important. Sikkink (Justice Cascade, 251),
argues that regions matter. Regions are early adopters and sites of
horizontal diffusion.
The Banyan Approach to Human Rights
• Appeal to cognitive priors. Symbolic politics (Banyan as a
cultural symbol and social institution) rather than
sanctions in order to propagate human rights norms and
help to localize and diffuse norms. South Korea-former
presidents were persecuted but with an eye to the honor of
their families. (Sikkink,281) Bolivia- traditional conceptions
of community justice had to be “reconciled with ideas of
human rights.” (Goldstein, p.7)
• Dialogue: the village council meeting under the Banyan
metaphor. Debate, consensus-building, dispute settlement.
Congruence-building is like the root trunks taking off from
the Banyan. Even if norms are accepted, negotiation over
their meaning and implementation and improvement may
continue. Not an one-step, but evolutionary process.
Southeast Asia
• The ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human
Rights (AICHR) 2009 - More of the Spiral Model. (No
protection mandate, created to deflect international
• The ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and
Protection of the Rights of Women and Children
(ACWC) 2010 – exemplifies the Banyan Model.
– It takes broad view of human rights, creates local
stakeholders and ‘insider proponents’
– Acts a s bridge between governments and civil society
(members drawn both government agencies and rights
– Mandate includes promotion and protection