Watchdogs or Lapdogs? : National Human Rights Institutions in Africa
Abstract: National human rights institutions (NHRIs) have important roles to play for the protection, promotion, and monitoring of human rights. These institutions are set up by governments that have a special role in upholding human rights but at the same time violate these rights. This book tells a story of the choices that governments have made when it comes to establishing and changing their NHRIs and how these choices affect the ability of the institutions to be effective and to fulfil their roles.The book argues that while previous research has emphasised the homogeneity of NHRIs, these institutions vary considerably in their type, design, and strength – and, at least partly as a consequence, in their capacity to hold actors to account for violations and transgressions. While some institutions have been designed to be little more than lapdogs, firmly controlled by the government, others have been designed, and proven to function, as true watchdogs, holding governments to account for their actions.Drawing on an ambitious mixed-methods research design, using quantitative methods to describe and explain the establishment and change of NHRIs and qualitative methods to trace how the design of NHRIs matters for their effectiveness, the dissertation makes three main contributions. First, theoretically, it presents a new conceptualisation on NHRIs, their design, and their strength. Second, it studies institutions that have rarely been studied and thereby makes an empirical contribution through both a descriptive and explanatory analysis using a new dataset on the design of 88 institutions in all African countries, from 1960 to 2014, and in-depth case studies on the NHRIs in Namibia and South Africa. Finally, the study presents a methodologically innovative approach to the research on NHRIs, especially in Africa, in its careful combination of quantitative techniques, used to describe and explain the variation within and among institutions, and qualitative techniques, used to trace how design matters for effectiveness.The dissertation presents three principal sets of findings. First, it finds that practically all countries have come to have an NHRI, with many having two (or even more) institutions. These institutions, however, have differed in terms of type, design, and, as a result, strength, even if institutions tend to be increasingly strong already when established. The analysis indicates that ties to other countries, whether in the shape of membership in international organisations (IO) or diffusion from other countries, may affect the establishment of NHRIs. Second, it finds that NHRIs are far from static as most see their design change, typically in ways that makes them more independent and more authoritative. Diffusion, official development assistance, and the respect for human rights are linked to regimes having stronger NHRIs, while IO membership see the opposite relationship. Such membership, however, is linked to a higher propensity to change institutions. Finally, the study finds that the variation in the design of institutions matters for their effectiveness, but that it often interacts with other factors, such as regime type. These findings have implications for both research and policy, for instance for the study of politicisation and backlash of both human rights in general and for NHRIs specifically.
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