This review examines recent scholarship on the rise of international human rights law and proposes that social movements have played critical roles both in elevating the standards of human rights in international law and in leveraging these standards into better local practices. Institutionalization of universal human rights principles began in the immediate post–World War II period, in which civil society actors worked with powerful states to establish human rights as a key guiding principle of the international community and to ensure the actors' continuing participation in international human rights institutions. The subsequent decades saw various hurdles arise in international politics, but civil society actors skillfully used the small openings that they had gained to continue to advance the cause of human rights. They held powerful governments accountable to their lofty promises about human rights and worked with sympathetic governments in the UN system to continuously upgrade the standards of international human rights. They also leveraged human rights laws toward better local practices, taking advantage of new political opportunities created by human rights laws, using expanding international channels to increase flows of human and material resources, embracing globally legitimated vocabularies of human rights to frame their movements, and integrating the broad cultural effects of human rights laws to construct new social movement identity and actorhood. The review then points out some potential pitfalls of international human rights laws: professionalization of movement actors, which can undermine the impact of social movements and lead to less ambitious and transformative goals; privileging of some causes over others, which can lead to demobilization around certain issues; and overextending movement goals, which can give rise to strong backlash against human rights principles.


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