How Human Rights Advocates Influence Policy at the United Nations


This article examines strategies used by human rights advocates to lobby for policy at intergovernmental organizations. We suggest that the literatures’ central questions are about how best to organize, connect, and communicate, which are usually seen through theory on transnational advocacy networks and framing. We add that these questions should be seen as gendered, given the continued male dominance within diplomatic corps. With unusual access to their strategy, we conduct a case study of one advocate’s successful campaign to get the United Nations to adopt a country-specific resolution. Like others, we found this campaigning relies upon the use of networks to overcome formal obstacles to access, human rights language to frame the problem, analysis of tally sheets of member states’ voting, and in-person lobbying. We also point out strategies key to their success that are not usually noticed by scholars, such as the gendered dynamics that get advocates in the door.

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  1. 1.

    Note that advocates, especially American-based ones, tend to resist this word because it has a specific legal meaning. We use it here in the broader, colloquial meaning of seeking to influence officials on an issue.

  2. 2.

    The resolution was about human rights in the country in general, not specific to women or minority groups.

  3. 3.

    Our research method was a mix of participant observation in the campaign and review of confidential reports to the network’s donors, with follow-up semi-structured interviews with the advocacy staff, giving access to much of their campaign strategy. Because some of the staff is not located in New York City, some interviews were conducted electronically.

  4. 4.

    The HRC passes its own human rights resolutions, most of which are thematic, but some are country-specific (Piccone and McMillen 2016). HRC mechanisms include the Universal Periodic Review (in which all member states are peer reviewed every four and half years), establishing Special Procedures (which have specific mandates to monitor human rights within one country or on a specific theme), commissions of inquiry (new mechanisms similar to the special procedures but more limited in scope and timeframe), and Special Sessions of the Human Rights Council. HRC resolutions are adopted either by the consensus of all 47 member states or by vote.

  5. 5.

    Article 71 of the UN Charter (1945) allows NGOs to interact with the UN on social, economic, and cultural issues through the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Consultative status grants access to ECOSOC as well as to many of the UN’s subsidiary bodies (the various human rights mechanisms of the United Nations, ad hoc processes on small arms, and special events organized by the President of the UNGA) (Montagna 2017).

  6. 6.

    As recognized by the UN (UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service 2007: 52), “NGOs can be found across the UN system, speaking to governments, serving on panels, holding briefings, forming issue caucuses, offering technical expertise, advocating on the national level, and implementing UN-related projects. NGO involvement varies across different subjects, bodies, and processes, depending to some degree on the momentum of civil society activism outside the United Nations.” Over the last decade, the UN has also created more spaces for explicit dialogue, with the “introduction of innovative meeting formats that enlarge the scope of participation, such as hearings, multi-stakeholder dialogues, and roundtables where NGOs and governments sit side by side and present their views to each other” as well as “online consultations” (UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service 2007: x).

  7. 7.

    Somerville and Aroussi (2009) make the claim about gender for explicitly gendered issues.

  8. 8.

    There is relatively little public information about this, but it is obvious when one is at the UN. More than four of five US career diplomats are white and three out of five are male; 5.4% of career diplomats are black, 6.9% are Asian, and 5.6% are Hispanic (Pickering and Perkins 2015; Kralev 2016).

  9. 9.

    The effect of telling a personal story in society can be seen in examples like Malala Yousafzai, who is an activist for female education and the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate, who was a victim of oppression against women in Pakistan. Another example is Somaly Mam, who is a Cambodian anti-trafficking advocate who focuses primarily on sex trafficking, where she was also a victim herself. Another former victim, Waris Dirie, works constantly against female genital mutilation as UN ambassador. The impact of people who tell their story helps to legitimize the use of testimonial information.


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Correspondence to Janet Elise Johnson.

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Johnson, J.E., Hestermann, X.M. How Human Rights Advocates Influence Policy at the United Nations. Hum Rights Rev 20, 145–160 (2019).

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  • Human rights
  • United Nations
  • Framing
  • NGO
  • Informal
  • Gender