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ag. 03 2012

The UN and international social norms

Since the Nineteenth century a number of social movements have campaigned for political and social rights, the abolition of slavery, peace building, independence of colonial powers  and other issues that have promoted a world civil society. After the trauma of world wars, the main powers agreed to create a government of nations which promoted international commitment to these principles, albeit at variable degrees. In this vein, all the members of the United Nations are currently committed to a growing number of universal statements and external recommendations on human rights in several policy areas. In education,  the International Conference on Education produced a comprehensive approach linking inequalities and inclusive education in 2008. Only one year later the Durban Declaration on Racism assigned “the primary responsibility of combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to States”.

In the eighties a research programme based at the University of Stanford found out that the human rights approach is embedded in a bundle of international social norms.  In their view, many UN agencies apply this approach to development, education, food and agriculture, health, labour, trade and so on, with a specific concern with social categories such as children, women and minorities exposed to discrimination. Their inquiries about the factors that lead governments to comply cast doubt on the influence of socio-economic development and modernisation, because their findings show that both more and less developed and modernised countries are senstive to the UN philosphy. They propose an alternative account according to which a world model of political citizenship has eventually prevailed so that all countries are accountable for the same criteria. Any government has to accept these norms in order to be respected as a legitimate power.

The Stanford analysis is convincing as far as the global reach of UN regulation is concerned. A growing number of sophisticate research drawing on historical sociology and statistical multivariate analysis of diachronic data actually provides evidence on the universality of these norms regardless of the more commonly observed societal differences. For instance, universal schooling started as a reaction to military defeat, but it is a general concern nowadays. Similarly, the extension of the franchise to women and the creation of administrative bodies in charge of human rights were initial victories of social movements that have become widely diffused later on. Interest on human rights in the curriculum of civic education also illustrates the same pattern of almost universal policy trasfer.

However, questions about effective implementation remain. Although governments feel a sort of obligation to reform their rhetorics, it is far from clear that they change their real policies. Besides formal adoption, further research seems necessary in order to know about the influence of these international recommendations on the social practices that are not a mere translation of formal legislation. Are human rights really implemented by governments who claim to do so? This is a growing concern in many fields such as the monitoring of the right to education. Are schools really teaching the democracy and social justice introduced in their formal curricula? Is gender equality an immediate outcome of formal statements? Are some governments paying lip service to these common international guidelines? These are  some remarkable and significant questions for further research.

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