Research Projects

Rights as Weapons in Political Conflict

Rights are usually viewed as defensive concepts representing mankind’s highest aspirations to protect and uplift the vulnerable.  But since the Enlightenment, political combatants have also used rights aggressively--to batter despised communities, demolish existing institutions, and smash opposing ideas.  Examining historical and contemporary conflicts, I describe how activists sharpen rights into weapons: by naturalizing, absolutizing, universalizing, and depoliticizing them. I show how they wield rights: to camouflage ulterior motives, break rival coalitions, attack policies, and explode societies.  Finally, I analyze how targets repulse the assault, often by claiming contrary rights. Comparing key episodes in rights’ rise, I raise troubling new questions about a concept we thought we knew.

Grant proposal for book, September 2011

Paper for Penn Comparative Politics Workshop, October 2011

The Market for Transnational Activism

Why does transnational advocacy occur?  Most of the existing literature posits that such activism arises when aggrieved groups in the developing world appeal for support and NGOs based in the developed world respond (Keck and Sikkink’s “boomerang” theory).  While the foregoing mechanism is operational to some degree, scholars have overlooked an important alternative dynamic:  the availability of resources at the international level gives incentives for groups at the local level to transnationalize their causes and in some cases to mobilize de novo.  More broadly, transnational activism is best understood as a market exchange in which post-materialist populations mostly in the developed world "demand" overseas causes (just as they do various luxury goods).  Local grievances, primarily in the developing world, represent a huge "supply" of potential causes, and many aggrieved groups seek to market their causes overseas.  NGOs act as middlemen, much like multinational corporations.  They transform the "raw material" of parochial, local grievances into "finished products" (internationally appealing issues), "selling" them to post-materialist audiences (as contributions to the NGO), funneling a portion of the "purchase price" to the local groups, and keeping some of the price to maintain their own organizations.

Draft chapter for Aseem Prakash and Mary Kay Gugerty, eds. Rethinking Advocacy Organizations: A Collective Action Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

NGO Representation and Accountability

Who do NGOs represent, and to whom should they be accountable?  In this brief essay, I argue that most NGOs represent only themselves, if the term is defined according to its ordinary meaning in democratic politics.  But that fact should not prevent NGOs from involvement in international security issues or world politics more broadly.  They play important roles both as service providers and as advocates.  Given this view, NGO accountability is less of a problem than often believed, and attempts to increase accountability should be implemented cautiously, particularly for advocacy NGOs. 

Unpublished paper

International Justice vs. Local Peace 

The classic case of international justice, Nuremberg, involved an international war and began after one side had definitively won the conflict.  By contrast, in cases that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has so far brought, conflict is internal and ongoing.  These differences raise important questions about the wisdom of pursuing international justice in war-torn societies—societies in which the pursuit of justice may delay or prevent an end to hostilities.  Using recent controversy over ICC indictments in Uganda as a springboard, I examine the interaction of local power dynamics with international justice mechanisms.  I also propose amendments to the ICC statute, providing greater discretion to prosecutors in bringing actions where they might undermine peace processes in war-torn societies. 

Unpublished paper

Human Rights and the Internet

In the early days of the Internet, many believed that it would lead to a global flowering of free expression.  While this has occurred to some degree, governments around the world have also sought to control online speech based on political, social, moral, and other rationales.  The result is the growth of a new area of human rights politics centered on Internet expression and identity.  In these conflicts, a set of recurrent players—states, companies, and NGOs--contend against one another using stock repertoires in a limited number of arenas.  Such contestation is part of broader contention over human rights, which has pitted NGO advocates against states and other entities for decades.  My paper analyzes conflict in this area, focusing both on the ways it fits within the larger dynamics of human rights politics and on the characteristics more specific to Internet-related speech issues.

Conference paper