The United Nations remains the principal international governmental organisation (IGO) for promoting human rights. However, serious concerns focus on persistent “compliance gaps” between human rights standards and domestic practice (Hafner-Burton 2013). In response and against a backdrop of growing regime complexity, UN human rights agencies have increasingly sought to bypass states by coordinating new forms of non-state and private authority (Keohane & Victor 2010). IR scholarship has captured this governance arrangement using the concept of orchestration, defined as when an international organisation enlists and supports intermediary actors to address target actors in pursuit of IGO governance goals (Abbott & Snidal 2010).
This paper explores the implications of an orchestration topology for human rights governance by analysing National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in the context of an established global human rights regime and its dedicated orchestrator: the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I use the experience of NHRIs to develop the concepts of managing versus bypassing states to capture how networked intermediaries are affected by and respond to new opportunities within IGO structures. The paper highlights how this transnational network of national officials has used both diplomatic and non-diplomatic tools to exercise a margin of independent action focused on narrowing state discretion.
To substantiate its claims, the paper draws on a range of primary sources and qualitative evidence, including extensive human subjects work with key stakeholders. The paper identifies the conditions under which orchestration may be particularly well-suited to a human rights governance function. It also engages in a critical appraisal of orchestration as a framework of analysis, with particular attention to questions of authority within this regulatory arrangement and how key actors are connected to power structures. It further examines what the analysis means for international organisations and their role in global governance more generally.