From the Boomerang to the Banyan: The Diffusion of Human Rights Norms Reconsidered

BoomerangBanyan tree     

(This paper is a summary of the author’s presentations to the Workshops on Religion and Human Rights Pragmatism: Promoting Rights across Cultures, Columbia University, New York, September 24, 2011, and the Columbia University Human Rights Futures Conference, 15 November 2013.)

One of the most influential approaches to explaining the spread of human rights norms in the literature on international relations emerged in the late 1990s. Authored by a group of constructivist scholars, this work revolved around two powerful concepts, the Boomerang and the Spiral, although the latter is seen as a refinement of the former.[1] These theoretical contributions have been widely studied, and inspired a generation of scholars, and I need not go into detail revisiting their contribution and the debates surrounding them. Briefly put, in the former, activists link up with transnational human rights groups and use their influence with their own national governments and international organizations to bring pressure to bear on their domestic oppressors. In the spiral model, which subsumes the boomerang, governments initially accept human rights norms for instrumental reasons, but gradually end up internalizing them due to moral pressure and accountability politics.

It is far from my intent here to reject the basic validity of these models in capturing a good deal on what goes on in the human rights world. But they suffered from several limitations.

First and foremost, both models had their origin in the Cold war and immediate post-Cold War milieu, a period of ‘end of history’, even though they have gone through modification and updating, including a 2nd revised edition of the The Power of Human Rights.[2]  The Boomerang model in its original iteration was derived from the specific context of US-Latin America relations and the Eastern European experience. As Haftner-Burton and James Ron point out, the “early and most influential qualitative studies [on the spread of human rights] may have been mistakenly generalized from the Latin American and Eastern European experience”, and thus research based on these frameworks on “Africa, Asia, or the Middle East may be barking up the wrong theoretical tree.”[3] They point out that “much of the Northern world’s contemporary human rights policy repertoire –including nongovernmental documentation and advocacy, media ‘naming and shaming’ treaty writing, and legislative efforts to link foreign aid to human rights performance-first originated in the U.S.-Latin American nexus.”[4]

These models painted a generally adversarial picture, focusing on few cases, especially case where the target is a highly repressive government. Hence they do not serve as an explanation for the general promotion of human rights norms around the world, including the developing world (such as India) where human rights approaches have been anchored on a more inclusive or positive relationship between the government and the civil society. And what about countries, such as China, which did not have a significant organized civil society due to official repression? How does the Boomerang work there?

Moreover, while in the boomerang the agency of change is found in domestic activists acting in concert with foreign governments and transnational NGOs, in reality, the agency role of local actors was hardly recognized. The latter were mostly Western, while the former were mostly from the developing world. And in an echo of what I have called moral cosmopolitanism, as Ron writes, the literature on human rights has privileged the role of transnational actors at the expense of local actors. As Ron says, it “paid far less attention to the local embodiments of human rights norms in the developing world.”[5] Domestic and local groups were treated as “pliant”, dependent and monolithic. Although in the Boomerang model local groups initiate the process of change, “their location, obscure language, and marginality…limited scholarly inquiry.” Yet, scholars increasingly acknowledge the critical role of local civil society groups: “Transnational NGOs and networks can monitor, inform, and advocate all they want, but without serious investments of time and effort by local human rights champions, nothing much will change on the ground”.[6]

Finally, some very important things in the global normative environment for human rights have changed since the end of the Cold War which calls into question the continued validity of the Boomerang model. 9/11 (and now the Snowden saga) has diminished the moral prestige and leverage of “Western Powers”, especially the US, in the developing world, for the Boomerangs to travel effectively. The rise of the rest has accelerated since the 1990s. Western leverage on human rights issues may be diminishing in view of the growing voice of emerging powers. Democratization in non-western societies (Indonesia) means local actors there have less rationale and need for support from outside. The role of social media empowers local actors and permits a more horizontal mobilization among domestic activists than ever before. Hence there is less need for information boomerangs that travel internationally. Finally, growth of regional organizations, especially in Asia, provides a new if not alternative site for debate and discussion and promotion of human rights.

To understand the diffusion of human rights in this altered global normative environment, and taking cognizance especially of the hitherto neglected role of local actors and their interactive or two-way relationship with the global human rights regime, I calls for a broader understanding of the origins of human rights with a view to look past the “universalism versus relativism” debate, and propose two relatively new concepts of norm diffusion: localization and subsidiarity.

Ending the Universalism-Particularism Divide

In his essay, “The Relative Universality of Human Rights”, Jack Donnelly argues that “Islamic, Confucian, and African societies did not in fact develop significant bodies of human rights ideas or practices prior to the twentieth century. He also concedes that the West too did not develop such a conception of human rights till industrial age.[7] The idea that human rights are peculiarly Western holds true only if one defines human rights narrowly. For Donnelly, Human rights are “equal and inalienable entitlements of all individuals that may be exercised against the state and society”.[8] Unlike Donnelley, I don’t think human rights should be defined exclusively in such oppositional terms. If the concept of human rights is understood in terms of justice and protection from cruel and arbitrary treatment of citizens by the state, then we find plenty of examples from other societies.

Examples of such injunctions against cruel and inhuman punishment might be found in Indian Emperor Ashoka’s words, as inscribed in his Kalinga rock edict dating to around 250 BC:

While being completely law-abiding, some people are imprisoned, treated harshly and even killed without cause so that many people suffer. Therefore your aim should be to act with impartiality…See that you do your duty properly… the judicial officers of the city may strive to do their duty and that the people under them might not suffer unjust imprisonment or harsh treatment. (Instructions to judicial officers, Emperor Ashoka, Kalinga Edict, Around 250 BC)

In contrast to Donnelly, Amartya Sen agrees that “The concept of universal human rights in the broad general sense of entitlements of every human being is really a relatively new idea, not to be much found either in the ancient West or in ancient civilizations elsewhere.” But Sen adds a powerful qualifier.

The idea of human rights as an entitlement of every human being, with an unqualified universal scope and highly articulated structure, is really a recent development; in this demanding form it is not an ancient idea either in the West or elsewhere. But there are limited and qualified defenses of freedom and tolerance, and general arguments against censorship that can be found both in ancient traditions in the West and in cultures of non-Western societies [9]

Who invented human rights and whether human rights are peculiarly Western depends on which version of the “foundational myths” of human rights one accepts. The so-called Western universalists fail to acknowledge that Western human rights begun as property rights. The Magna Carta, as The Economist magazine reminded us recently, was after all created to “uphold feudal rights”.[10] If property rights demanded is viewed as the real precursor of political rights, then the latter can be indeed made to look more “Western”. If on the other hand the origins of human rights is traced more as a matter of political rights, or rights against cruel and unjust treatment of persons and of political absolutism of the rulers that disregards the welfare of citizens, then there are lots of precedents in other cultures, even during the ancient periods as can be seen from the Ashokan edict.

Rejecting “relativism” is the default position of many human rights advocates, who often assume, explicitly or implicitly that human rights are universal (meaning Western in origin and conception), and others should accept it as is. Those who do not agree with this position (especially the non-Western countries) are dismissed as “relativists” and “particularizers” (not a compliment). Moreover, a key aspect of this unsavory “particularization” is seen to lie in the non-Western developing countries’ insistence on the collective rights. But this grossly misrepresents the recent the historiography of human rights, especially the initiative and support for human rights in Latin America, Asia and Africa, both in the context of decolonization and the creation of a post-war normative architecture of global governance.[11] As Reus-Smit puts it:

The standard account of the development of international human rights norms identifies three phases: the first addressing civil and political rights, the second economic and social rights, and the third collective rights. The West is credited with the first, the Soviet bloc with the second, and the developing world with the third. In reality, however, during the negotiation of the two Covenants newly independent states consistently stressed the primacy of civil and political rights, and they were the strongest advocates of robust enforcement mechanisms.[12]

Moreover, promoting human rights globally, while claiming universal human rights to be Western in its origin, is a bad strategy. It is unrealistic and even self-defeating, from a purely advocacy point of view,  to argue that human rights are Western, but then expect everyone else to adopt them unconditionally. It reinforces the perception that the West is imposing its standards on other cultures. On the other hand, acknowledging that human rights have a multiple and global heritage also allows us to look past the divisive, unhelpful and false divide between universalism and relativism, and lays the basis for a more effective strategy of human rights promotion.  Might it not be better to say that human rights have a multiple or different points of origin, which might be increasingly converging? The challenge is to find that common ground among the different points of origin of human rights.

The opposite of human rights universalism is not relativism, but human rights pluralism. And the opposite of relativism is not universalism, but ethnocentrism. A pluralistic understanding of human rights recognizes the voices of local actors, state and non-state, in the different regions and cultures and at different points of time, who may have independently developed ideas and norms which are compatible with the norms of others. Universality in this sense does not mean sameness, but the acceptance of diversity which is the only universal condition of our global society.

How the Local Matters?

A framework for understanding human rights norm diffusion that stresses the agency of local actors can be developed out of some of the recent “agent-centric” theories of norm diffusion, especially the ideas of localization and subsidiarity.

Localization is the active construction (through discourse, framing, grafting, and cultural selection) of foreign ideas by local actors, which results in the former developing significant congruence with local beliefs and practices. [13] Subsidiarity is the other side of localization. I define norm subsidiarity as a process whereby local actors create rules with a view to preserve their autonomy from dominance, neglect, violation, or abuse by more powerful central actors [14]

The prospect for localization depends on (1) the strength of indigenous cultural traits and traditions, and the moral and functional appeal of prior local norms and institutions, (2) positive impact of new norms on the legitimacy and authority of key norm-takers, without altering their fundamental identity, (3) the credibility, legitimacy and prestige of local agents, and (4) the scope for grafting and pruning presented by foreign norms.

Localization, rather than wholesale acceptance, occurs when prior norms are robust and are embedded in strong local institutions. In HR, if those institutions offer strong protection to local actors, like the community justice in Bolivia. Some local norms are foundational to a group. They may derive from deeply-ingrained cultural beliefs and practices or from international legal norms which had, at an earlier stage, been borrowed and enshrined in the constitutional documents of a group. The stronger the local norm, the greater the likelihood that new foreign norms will be localized rather than accepted wholesale. If norm-takers believe that that their existing beliefs and approaches are not harmful, but merely inadequate, (i.e., not geared to addressing newer challenges) and therefore have to be broadened and strengthened with the infusion of new ideas, then localization is more likely than displacement.

Localization is facilitated by the norm takers’ sense of identity, especially if they possess a well-developed sense of being unique in terms of their values and interactions. In his study of Indonesian politics, Benedict Anderson mentions the “whole trend to absorb and transform the Western concepts of modern politics within Indonesian-Javanese mental structures.”

Second, localization is likely if the norm-takers’ come to believe that new outside norms – which may be initially feared and resisted simply because of their alien quality – could be used to enhance the legitimacy and authority of their extant institutions and practices, but without fundamentally altering their existing social identity.

A third condition is the availability of credible local actors (“insider proponents”) with sufficient discursive influence to match or outperform outside norm entrepreneurs operating at the global level. The credibility of local agents depends on their social context and standing. Local norm entrepreneurs are likely to be more credible if they are seen by their target audience as upholders of local values and identity and not simply “agents” of outside forces or actors and whether they are part of a local epistemic community which could claim a record of success in prior normative debates. Diffusion strategies that accommodate local sensitivity are more likely to succeed than those who seek to supplant the latter. Hence, outsider proponents are more likely to advance their cause if they act through local agents, rather than going independently at it.

Finally, the existential compatibility between foreign and local norms must not be ignored as another catalyst. The prior existence of a local norm in similar issue areas as that of a new external norm and which makes similar behavioral claims makes it easier for local actors to introduce the latter. Moreover, the external norm must lend itself to some pruning, or adjustments that make it compatible with local beliefs and practices, without compromising its core attributes. Hence, the relative scope for grafting and pruning presented by a new foreign norm contributes to the norm-taker’s interest to localize and is critical to its success.

Actors resort to norm subsidiarity for two main reasons. The first is to challenge their exclusion or marginalization from global norm making processes. Institutions dominated by great powers do not always reflect the ideas, interests and identities of weaker states. In such cases, norm subsidiarity is a response by the latter to the “tyranny” of higher-level institutions (formal or informal, including multilateral organizations or great power security management regimes) in global governance. Second, states may resort to norm subsidiary when confronted with great power hypocrisy. This occurs when they see the violation of their cherished global norms by powerful actors and when higher level institutions tasked with their defense seem unwilling or incapable of preventing their violation.

In short, both localization and subsidiarity stress the agency of local actors, the importance of cognitive priors, and the need to build congruence between existing and emerging norms. Both recognize that normative change in most cases is evolutionary, not a one-step transformation, and that “shaming” should be pursued alongside “saving face”, rather than be an end in itself. Subsidiarity stresses local norm creation and their repatriation or external circulation, including from regional to global and on a region-to-region basis. Most important, both interrogate the allegedly universalistic claims of ideas and norms or at least recognize that many of the ideas and norms that are supposedly universal are essentially Western and display a Western bias. They also call for viewing human rights diffusion as a two-way dialogue between local “norm takers” and transnational advocacy groups, and for tempering, if not rejecting, the moral cosmopolitanism of constructivist approaches to norm diffusion, whereby good global norms are implicitly seen as western, and bad local practices non-Western. This approach holds that some local beliefs and practices have a robust legitimacy and functionality which should be recognized and promoted.

Enter the Banyan

How to develop a more inclusive approach to human right norm diffusion that gives due recognition to the agency role of the local actors? To this end, I propose what might be called the Banyan metaphor of human rights norm diffusion.

According to the official “KnowIndia” website run by the Indian government, a Banyan is an

“Indian fig tree, Ficus bengalensis, whose branches root themselves like new trees over a large area. The roots then give rise to more trunks and branches. Because of this characteristic and its longevity, this tree is considered immortal and is an integral part of the myths and legends of India. Even today, the banyan tree is the focal point of village life and the village council meets under the shade of this tree.[15]

The definition suggests several core characteristics of the Banyan. The fact that the branches of the Banyan “root themselves like new trees over a large area” resonates with the idea of localization. And the fact that the new “roots then give rise to more trunks and branches” evokes the idea of subsidiarity.

The main trunk of the Banyan is the modern Western concept of human rights. But the subsidiary trunks and branches that germinate from the roots of the branches are what keeps the tree stable and ensure its longevity. It is they which provide the large canopy and shade for people to rest and engage in recreation, and deliberate for village council meetings.

Banyans have long lives; they are rarely cut down by people, especially in crowded poor villages. They have a social and cultural significance (hence are an “integral part of the myths and legends of India”). Their value is judged not mainly in economic or rationalist terms. And as a focal point of the village council, they are a site of dispute settlement, consensus, and governance. They are used as a social venue, a comforting place, and as a resting place for travelers. The Banyans are known for their inclusivity, with wide, shady canopy, and used by the rich as well as the poor. The banyan is part of the coat of arms of Indonesia” “meant to symbolize its national motto: unity in diversity, or “one country with many far-flung roots.”

Moreover, the Banyan is multicultural. The Banyan is multicultural, sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. Since the Bodhi Tree is a version of the Banyan, the Banyan is associated with Enlightenment, of the Buddhist, not the Western kind.  The oldest Banyan Tree standing still in India was planted by Kabir, a saint of Sufism, the most inclusive and tolerant sect of Islam.

The Banyan combines elements of both localization and subsidiarity. It involves bringing global norms to local context, and exporting locally made rules to the global context. In both cases, it recognizes the primacy of local actors.

There are several aspects of promoting human rights the Banyan, as opposed to the Boomerang, way. These include:

  1. Stressing the multiple and global heritage of human rights ideas and norms. The standard narrative that human rights, especially protection against unjust and cruel punishment, are Western in origin is not only false, but also tactically counterproductive in so far as the promotion of human rights is concerned. A Banyan has a large canopy and multiple roots, which collectively define and sustain the tree.
  2. Adopting a more inclusive, rather than adversarial approach, although both elements may be present depending on the context and need. In village life, a Banyan shelters a variety of creatures and activities and is generally seen as a place for accommodation even though it also offers a site for arguments, negotiations, compromise and sanctions.
  3. Emphasizing the role of local (domestic, regional) actors, their ownership and norm entrepreneurship. A Banyan shelters outside travelers, but they are guests. They bring in new ideas and new incentives, but it is the locals who decide whether to buy their product and how much of it. A Banyan also connotes two-way interactions among its roots (top-down or global to local support and bottom-up or local to global feedback). Consistent with the metaphor of a village council meeting under the Banyan tree, local actors and institutions can provide a venue for debate, consensus, dialogue, and dispute settlement. The key is two-way dialogue between outside and inside proponents of human rights.
  4. Making use of cognitive priors, including cultural ones, in framing and operationalizing human rights ideas and approaches. This speaks to the cultural and religious significance of the Banyan. A Banyan approach would stress symbolic politics rather than sanctions, “saving face” rather than shaming. The cultural and religious attributes of other cultures, including those of pre-modern West are cognitive priors. A Banyan approach uses them to localize and diffuse the norm.

In a Banyan approach, human rights diffusion is not a dramatic, one-step process, but evolutionary. Even if norms are accepted through treaties, negotiation over their meaning and implementation and improvement may continue. Local actors are not necessarily aided or abetted by Western or transnational rights groups, who threaten a boomerang of international pressure or sanctions, but promote human rights by engaging in identity politics, or discourses about regional and local identities. For their part, governments, including newly democratic governments, may seek domestic and regional legitimacy, and distance themselves from their autocratic predecessors. In advancing their cause, both governments and local and regional NGOs rely on insider advocates within governments as much as outsiders. They also focus on local issues, invoke local symbols, and use preexisting forms of mobilisation. Local NGOs may partner transnational NGOs, but keep the driver’s seat.  The dialogue between civil society groups and governments continue under the Banyan Tree (the village council) to expand on the early gains. NGOs incrementally apply pressure and insert themselves into a regional human rights agenda.

There is now growing evidence that the global human rights movement is going local. Recent studies on human rights increasingly show the changing relationship between the global and the local advocacy of human rights. It not only shows “how local struggles and realities transform classic human rights concepts”.[16]  There has also been “a growing emphasis on realization of rights on the ground” and a consequent “re-calibrating of the balance between global and local actors,” with movements in the Global South “actively seeking different sources of authority, knowledge, framing and agenda-setting power” to challenge “northern dominance and developing their own capacity to shape global debates.”[17] These shifts are consistent with the shift from a boomerang to a Banyan approach, and may ultimately define true universalism in the idea and practice of human rights.


[1] On the Boomerang model, see Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998). On the spiral model and difference between it and the boomerang model, see Thomas Risse, Steven C. Ropp and Kathryn Sikkink, The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Here I shall only refer to the Boomerang, since the spiral model is seen as a refinement and extension of the former.

[2] Thomas Risse, ‎‎Stephen C. Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, eds., The Persistent Power of Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[3] Emile M. Hafner-Burton and James Ron, “Seeing Double: Human Rights Impact Through Qualitative and Quantitative Eyes,” World Politics, vol.61, no.2 April 2009, 378-379).

[4] Ibid., 367.

[5] James Ron, “Legitimate or Alien? Human Rights Organizations in the Developing World,” Paper circulated at the Workshops on Religion and Human Rights Pragmatism: Promoting Rights across Cultures, Columbia University New York, 24 September 2011.

[6] Ron, “Legitimate or Alien”.

[7] Jack Donnelly, “The Relative Universality of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 29, No 2, (May 2007): 286.

[8] Donnelly, The Relative Universality of Human Rights,” 284.

[9] Amartya Sen, “Universal Truths: Human Rights and the Westernizing Illusion,” Harvard International Review, Vol. 20, no.3 (Summer, 1998), pp. 40-43.

[10] “The Uses of History,” The Economist, 20 December 2014, p.35.

[11] Christian Reus-Smit, Individual Rights and the Making of the International System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2013); Kathryn Sikkink, “Latin American Countries as Norm Protagonists of the Idea of International Human Rights,” Global Governance, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2014):389-404.

[12] Reus-Smit, “Building the Liberal International Order: Locating American Agency,” Paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington,DC, 28-31 August 2014, pp.12-13.

[13] On localization, see: Amitav Acharya, “How Ideas Spread: Whose Norms Matter? Norm Localization and Institutional Change in Asian Regionalism”, International Organization, vol. 58, no.2 (Spring 2004), pp. 239-275; Acharya, Whose Ideas Matter? Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009);

[14] Amitav Acharya, “Norm Subsidiarity and Regional Orders: Sovereignty, Regionalism and Rule Making in the Third World,” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 55 (2011), pp. 95–123.

[15] “National Tree,”

[16] Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, eds., The Human Rights Paradox: Universality and Its Discontents (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014): from the back cover.

[17] See for example, “Convergence Towards the Global Middle: An Emerging Architecture for the International Human Rights Movement,” Sudan Vision: An Independent Daily, Issue #: 3447, 20th January, 2015.


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