Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

Firming Up Soft Law: The Impact of Indicators on Transnational Human Rights Legal Orders

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By Sally Engle Merry

Professor Sally Engle Merry, Professor at New York University and Adjunct Professor at ANU’s Regulatory Institutions Network, visited the Centre for International Governance and Justice in March. Regarding Rights is pleased to present the seminar she delivered during her visit on the role of indicators in global human rights regimes, along with the following synopsis by Professor Merry of her talk:

The human rights legal order is famously lacking in clear sanctioning power, yet it exerts considerable soft power in a wide variety of ways. The use of indicators – quantitative measures of performance – tends to harden soft law in transnational contexts. In the human rights legal order, recourse to indicators helps to define legal obligations more clearly and to specify the terms of compliance. Thus, they serve to harden human rights law. What does this mean for the way human rights are understood and for their role in promoting global justice? Here I explore the implications of translating soft law norms on human rights into quantitative indicators. I argue that the translation of human rights norms into indicators clarifies and specifies obligations, thus enhancing accountability, but at the same time shifts human rights from a legal discourse with a broad and flexible vision of justice and rights to a technocratic and rational one based on the language of economics and management. Consequently, the use of indicators enhances collaboration between human rights law and development planning but not between human rights ideas and social movements.

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