Saturday, March 27, 2010

Institutionalizing Human Rights

On Tuesday, Temple's International Law Colloquium had the pleasure of hosting Galit Sarfaty (pictured left), Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Galit presented her paper, Why Culture Matters in International Institutions: The Marginality of Human Rights at the World Bank, which was published in the October 2009 issue of the American Journal of International Law. (If you are an academic, that means that the article is already sitting on your desk somewhere, and it's well worth the effort to dig it out from under that pile of papers and read it!)
Trained as an anthropologist, Galit analyzes the rich and fascinating results of her doctoral research conducting an ethnography of the World Bank. Largely descriptive, the study seeks to answer the question of why the World Bank has failed to adopt a human rights policy or agenda. From interviews with James Wolfensohn to detailed analysis of the Bank's articles of agreement, the article is a riveting read that raises important questions about human rights standards and international organizations. Galit describes the thorny politics of the Bank's Board of Executive Directors, reflecting North/South struggles over the content and application of international human rights law. She suggests that the Bank's failure to adopt a human rights policy despite several attempts is due to the institution's organizational culture and the interpretive frames used by professional groups within the bank to assess new norms. Galit posits that
to bring about internalization, actors must adapt norms to local meanings and existing cultural values and practices -- that is, they must 'vernacularize' norms.
As explained in her presentation, the central take-away from her article is that human rights norms must be adapted to fit within the Bank's organizational culture, which prizes an economic approach above all else. Galit then poses the crucial question -- if we adapt human rights to this cultural context, will the norms become so diffuse that they will no longer have a significant impact? This is but one of many important thoughts provoked by her excellent article, which is well worth a read.

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