Activists in International Courts

Duration: 2019-2022
Funder: Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) "Partnership Development Grant"

ActInCourts (Activists in International Courts) is an emerging and expanding network of interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners whose work on international human rights courts generates ground-breaking research.

By creating critical connections between scholars and practitioners in North America and Europe, and with institutes working on international human rights courts, we hope to foster collaboration and dynamic research on the roles of activist lawyers and nongovernmental organizations in international human rights courts’ jurisprudence and implementation of rulings. Our Canadian SSHRC Partnership Development Grant (2019-2022) provides the opportunity to more fully explore the power and impact of these partnerships and collaborations.

Collectively, we examine the legitimacy of international courts, state compliance, and legal mobilization before international courts, and we do so from various fields of study and with diverse areas of expertise. Our research ranges from meta-data examinations of general patterns of case law in human rights courts, to local fieldwork on how lawyers and NGO activists work in particular country contexts.

Our Work under the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) "Partnership Development Grant"

Our Partnership Development Grant, “ActInCourts” (Activism in International Courts), examines how rights advocates influence the decisions of international human rights courts despite a growing backlash against the authority of international courts and a “shrinking space” for civil society.

Existing theories abound on the interactions between states and international courts. They focus on how judges in these courts wrestle between deferring to the interests of member state governments whose actions are on trial and sticking closely to the conventions’ fundamental yet evolving principles. But the courts themselves rely on the “supply” of cases that individual applicants litigate.

Without an adequate understanding of how and why lawyers represent victims before international human rights courts, who funds and trains these lawyers and NGOs, and what the effects are on the behaviour of both member state governments and international courts, we risk undervaluing their strategic impact on the expansion of case law, state accountability, and the domestic implementation of these judgments.

Rights advocates (NGOs, activists, and lawyers) increasingly look to international courts like the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as tools to pursue improvements in domestic human rights conditions.

Although human rights courts have become increasingly popular among victims and activists who seek justice when justice fails at home, we are only beginning to understand who or what shapes the development of human rights courts’ authority and how they make their rulings. Despite the growing role of these courts in holding states accountable for human rights violations, the courts themselves face a political backlash from states with both authoritarian and democratic political regimes.

Our 2019-2022 SSHRC Partnership Development Grant, will facilitate the piloting of a global network of practitioners and academics that will a) mobilize knowledge on international litigation and strategies to resist state oppression; b) develop a shared analytical framework on the roles of nonstate actors in shaping international courts’ decisions; and c) share knowledge among scholars and practitioners about how rights advocates navigate domestic politics to increase the impact of international rulings. Our interdisciplinary team of legal scholars, political scientists, and sociologists will independently and jointly produce research analysis on the three themes, deploying a variety of research methods that are suited to the questions they examine and to each of their disciplinary backgrounds. We will organize a pilot “practitioners’ school” in Toronto during the final year of the project, to develop ways of exchanging ideas and practices among litigating organizations and lawyers – who rarely have opportunities to meet in person – as well as to enhance translation of scholarly research in useful ways for practitioners, and scholar-practitioner co-production of research.

Together we will build a shared knowledge base and theoretical framework on strategic litigation by rights advocates during a growing backlash against the authority of international courts and a “shrinking space” for civil society in many respondent states. Without the PDG, we would be pursuing our individual research projects but would lack the time together and shared resources that are necessary to devote concentrated collaborative research efforts to these questions."

The Activists in International Courts network comprises a team of scholars and practitioners lead by principal investigator Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom (University of British Columbia) workin in cooperation with Freek van der Vet (University of Helsinki), Rachel Cichowski (University of Washington), Lisa Conant (University of Denver), Heidi Nichols Haddad (Pomona College), Courtney Hillebrecht (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Filiz Kahraman (University of Toronto), Dilek Kurban (Hertie School of Governance) and Mikael Rask Madsen (University of Copenhagen).

Further information on the project can be found on the Activists in International Courts webpage.