What inspired you to investigate who makes human rights, focusing on UN treaty bodies in particular?
I have to admit that I ended up investigating this particular topic without really planning it. I started my PhD with an interest in states compliance with human rights treaties, and I already had a proposal with theoretical framework and a research design and all the things you need to get going. But then I came to Geneva in November 2013 and observed the meetings of the UN treaty bodies in Palais Wilson and so many things were different from what I expected. Back then I heard for the first time about the “general comments”, a tool which the treaty bodies can use to clarify the meaning of treaty norms. I realized that many actors had an interest in the drafting of such a general comment and I started asking questions about the when, how and why of such human rights interpretations – and in the end I left Geneva with a new research topic.
A major contribution of your book is the new concept of “Transnational Lawmaking Coalitions”. What are TCLs and why are they important?
For this book, TLCs shed light on the particularities of human rights treaty interpretations and provide an analytical lens to understanding the key role expert bodies and issue professionals play in the development of human rights law. The value of TLCs lies in their ability to act as change makers in international law in light of political, economic, and social challenges. These coalitions of individuals emerge when states do not act decisively on a given global problem or their negotiations and decision-making processes are in gridlock. In that sense, TLCs are not a new phenomenon. Efforts by individuals and organizations - from civil society, academia, international institutions, and other public and private spheres - to advocate for global solutions and lobby for preferred regulations exist everywhere policies are made. Yet, TLCs are not focused on persuading governments or intergovernmental negotiations. They deliberately choose international law as a response to these challenges, and their coalition takes place in expert institutions that monitor international treaties.
What does your work reveal about the role of experts and professional networks in global governance?
My focus is on independent experts, thus individuals that are nominated and elected by states to expert bodies based on their personal expertise. These experts are not employed by the international organization (IO) and continue to work in their primary occupation while serving on the IO committee. What my work reveals is that they rely on their professional network for their IO work, also because they do not get paid for extra-curricular activities like elaborating treaty interpretations. There is a lot to discover about the role of personal relationships and overlapping biographies on the one hand, which raises questions on the exclusivity of global governance, but also about the limits of legal expertise for the development of international law.
How does your research build on our existing understanding of transnational actors and their influence on international law and politics?
I build on the work of giants here, so I’ll try to highlight the main strands of scholarship. First, there is the literature on the influence of transnational actors, particularly in human rights. Keck and Sikkink’s “Activists beyond Borders” continues to be the key source to understand how transnational actors can influence international politics and has inspired so much scholarship I admire. Then there’s the human rights scholarship on non-state actors and the development of norms, and, of course, the work done on the opening-up of international organizations to transnational actors. Beyond that, I have learned a lot from research on epistemic communities, the construction of expertise for global governance and professional networks and issue professionals.
Given the nature of international policy – and lawmaking – most studies focus mainly on intergovernmental settings, creating an emphasis on visible public institutions and processes in international organizations. By contrast, the conditions and circumstances for participation, access, and, ultimately, influence on lawmaking in expert committees are different, and strategies to engage with independent experts are less visible than when engaging with diplomats or state representatives in international negotiations. This is where my research goes a step further: it is possible to influence international law without having to go through “the state”.
What are the current and future issues on which your book sheds new light?
I could talk about all the cases in this book - from how water became a human right, to the right to life, the prohibition of torture and newfound challenges like hate speech - and beyond forever. I still do research on the treaty bodies and I am fascinated by how they get their work done with all the budget constraints, non-compliance and critique from states. I am currently revisiting some treaty interpretations on gender-related aspects of the human rights treaties. Through the lens of TLCs, we can identify feminist expert networks which were crucial to advance women’s rights under various treaties. My book also closes with a discussion of transferring the concept from human rights to other expert bodies in IOs. I want to look into TLCs in the International Monetary Fund, World Health Organization, and International Labour Organization from a comparative perspective in the future.
You are an associated researcher of the Global Governance Centre (GGC) since 2019. How has your time here shaped your research?
I came to the GGC for the academic year 2018/19 as a visiting scholar and since then I am affiliated with the Centre. I can’t emphasize enough how important the Graduate Institute is for my research and this book. It starts at the basic material level: I have access to resources that I wouldn’t have at my German home institution, a public university. The proximity to all the IOs in Geneva, and the UN human rights system, are decisive for my qualitative research and through the Graduate Institute’s accreditation, I never have to worry about access to their premises. Then there’s the learning space, Maison de la Paix, which is like paradise for International Relations (IR) scholars: you have all these events in the centres and departments or the Geneva Academy; get to discuss new scholarship from established and up-and-coming scholars; in the evening you have panel discussions and book talks organized with other institutions from International Geneva and listen to Secretary-Generals and heads of states. Most importantly, I get to work with and learn from top scholars in International Relations and Law. My time with Nico Krisch’s PATHS project team was a wonderful learning experience – and truly interdisciplinary. This experience comes very naturally at the Graduate Institute; I sometimes feel like my research is getting better simply by having lunch or coffee with colleagues from the Centre and the departments. It is an absolute privilege to get their expert feedback on book proposals and discuss papers and grant ideas. There’s so much more, but I want to highlight the collegiality in the GGC. I have truly found a second academic home in Geneva.
Dr. Nina Reiners (PhD, Political Science, University of Potsdam) is Postdoc in the “International Rule of Law: Rise or Decline?” research group at Free University Berlin and Research Associate at the Graduate Institute's Global Governance Centre. Her interdisciplinary research agenda broadly engages questions in international law, human rights and social justice.
Dr. Reiners’ new book is Transnational Lawmaking Coalitions for Human Rights, published by Cambridge University Press (download the book flyer). The introductory chapter is freely available online during December 2021. Visit: www.ninareiners.com and follow @NinaReiners on Twitter.