New book on Human Rights, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

In this guest post, Giulia Dondoli discusses her new book "Transnational Advocacy Networks and Human Rights Law: Emergence and Framing of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation". 

Human rights law is not a static body of rules and principles. Rather, human rights standards are in an ongoing process of development and regression. Understanding how this process occurs is one of the fundamental themes of human rights theories. This book asks one major question: How do LGBTI human rights standards emerge in the human rights debate? To answer this question, the book focuses on nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and transnational advocacy networks (TANs).

The book argues that the way in which NGOs work together in TANs, and the political opportunities and constraints provided by international organisations, states and other NGOs outside the network shape the way in which issues emerge and are framed as human rights violations. The book focuses on discovering how LGBTI NGOs decide their advocacy agenda, name human rights violations, and strategically present legal analysis to advance LGBTI human rights. The aim of such an analysis is twofold. On the one hand, the book looks backwards, explaining some of the reasons why LGBTI human rights provisions have evolved. And on the other hand, the book looks forwards, pointing out the gaps in the current protection of LGBTI rights and making recommendations on how to promote the development of LGBTI rights.

The book applies a merged use of TANs and social movement theories to study LGBTI advocacy at the United Nations. In doing so, the book analyses three data sets: NGO written statements submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council, NGO oral statements delivered during the Universal Periodic Review process, and 36 semi-structured interviews with NGO staff. Data are analysed with a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches to discover what issues are most important for LGBTI TANs (issue emergence), how these issues are framed (issue framing). Along with NGO efficiency in lobbying for the emergence of new human rights standards, the book inevitably discusses important questions related to NGOs’ accountability and democratic legitimacy. Therefore, the book asks whether the rights to marry and to form a family are important for LGBTI advocates working transnationally, because these rights are particularly controversial among activists and LGBTI communities, especially in non-Western contexts.

First, the book shows that that LGBTI gatekeeper NGOs operate democratically by building LGBTI TANs horizontally and decentralising their position in the network. To do so, they work to empower peripheral NGOs and they advocate for rights that enhance the domestic political opportunities of peripheral NGOs. Consequently, stronger peripheral NGOs that work in consultation with gatekeeper NGOs can better influence the TANs’ advocacy agenda decision-making. Second, LGBTI gatekeeper NGOs frame LGBTI issues in a way that maximises their political opportunities, and minimises resistance from conservative/religious opponents of LGBTI people’s rights. Therefore, LGBTI gatekeeper NGOs use mainly, although not exclusively, a prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity framework, because it is a practical framework and it matches a well consolidated human rights principle. Despite LGBTI gatekeeper NGOs’ best efforts, the prohibition of discrimination is still perceived as provocative by some conservative/religious TANs and states that use a “slippery slope” argument.

Finally, as a litmus test of the study, the book investigates whether Western/gatekeeper NGOs —two categories that often overlap —impose perceived Western priorities, such as the advocacy for the right to marry and to form a family, upon the periphery of the network. The book demonstrates that LGBTI gatekeeper NGOs consider that advocating for the right to marry and to form a family is not a good transnational advocacy strategy. Therefore, they do not impose such advocacy upon their less powerful peripheral partners.

The book contributes to TANs and social movement theories advancing that gatekeeper/Western NGOs do not act hegemonically in the LGBTI TANs and they partially relinquish their social power. However, the book describes some of the limitations to the democratic legitimacy of LGBTI TANs. As a contribution to empirical knowledge, the book identifies that LGBTI TANs mainly —although not exclusively —frame LGBTI issues as a prohibition of discrimination claim. Such findings help to explain why the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity is slowly consolidating as a human right standard.

Giulia Dondoli completed her PhD in Human Rights Law at the University of Waikato (New Zealand). This is her first book. The author can be contacted at