Firming up soft law: The impact of indicators on transnational human rights legal orders

Sally Engle Merry

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The human rights legal order is famously lacking in clear sanctioning power, yet it exerts considerable soft power in a wide variety of ways. The use of indicators – quantitative measures of performance – tends to harden soft law in transnational contexts. In the human rights legal order, recourse to indicators helps define legal obligations more clearly and specify the terms of compliance. What does this mean for the way human rights are understood and for their role in promoting global justice? The turn to indicators for broad legal norms promotes their transnational applicability and their legibility to other disciplines that rely on such quantitative measures, such as economics. It seems to promote their institutionalization, what Halliday and Shaffer call “normative settling.” Thus, indicators harden human rights law. This chapter explores the process of translating soft-law norms on human rights into quantitative indicators. I argue that the translation of human rights norms into indicators clarifies and specifies obligations, thus enhancing accountability, but at the same time it shifts human rights from a legal discourse with a broad and flexible vision of justice and rights into a technocratic and rational one based on the language of economics and management. The use of indicators, particularly those framed in economic terms, gives meaning to international norms that move across national boundaries and disciplinary lines. Consequently, the use of indicators enhances collaboration between human rights law and development planning but not between human rights ideas and social movements.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationTransnational Legal Orders
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Number of pages26
    ISBN (Electronic)9781107707092
    ISBN (Print)9781107069923
    StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Social Sciences


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