About Us

Protest in front of the US Supreme Court (Maria Oswalt, Unsplash)

International courts can play an important role in struggles to address rights violations. The Activism in International Courts (“ActInCourts”) network brings together researchers and practitioners to investigate the opportunities, challenges and risks of rights advocacy via international law and institutions.

In recent decades, international courts like the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have become popular for victims and activists when their efforts to secure justice in their home countries have failed. Rights advocates (activists, lawyers, non-governmental organizations) have attempted to use international human rights courts as tools to secure redress for rights violations and to improve domestic human rights conditions. However, these international bodies increasingly face challenges to their authority in democratic and authoritarian regimes.

ActInCourts is an expanding network of interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners with three goals:

  • Promote ground-breaking research on rights advocacy and legal mobilization via international courts;
  • Develop connections for collaboration and knowledge-sharing between researchers and practitioners from different countries and regions;
  • Share knowledge about how rights advocates pursue litigation, resist state oppression, and navigate domestic politics to improve domestic human rights conditions.

The ActInCourts project is primarily supported by a Partnership Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The Principal Investigator for the grant is Professor Lisa Sundstrom of the University of British Columbia. Learn more about Lisa and the leaders of the ActInCourts network here.

Collectively, we examine the legitimacy of international courts, state compliance, and legal mobilization before international courts, and we do so from various fields of study and with diverse areas of expertise. Our research ranges from meta-data examinations of general patterns of case law in human rights courts to local fieldwork on how lawyers and NGO activists work in particular country contexts. We also promote collaborations among researchers, activists and litigating organizations – groups that rarely have opportunities to exchange ideas and practices.

Why focus on “Activists”?

Existing theories abound on the interactions between states and international courts. They focus on how judges in these courts wrestle between deferring to the interests of member state governments whose actions are on trial and sticking closely to the conventions’ fundamental yet evolving principles. But the courts themselves rely on the “supply” of cases that individual applicants litigate.

The ActInCourts network instead focuses on how rights advocates influence the actions, decisions and impacts of international human rights courts. Without an adequate understanding of how and why lawyers represent victims before international human rights courts, who funds and trains these lawyers and NGOs, and what the effects are on the behaviour of both member state governments and international courts, we risk undervaluing their strategic impact on the expansion of case law, state accountability, and the domestic implementation of these judgments.

Furthermore, studying and engaging with advocates in different regions can reveal the changing global landscape of human rights mobilization. In particular, rights advocates increasingly face a growing backlash against the authority of international courts and a “shrinking space” for civil society activities to promote human rights.

Our interdisciplinary team of legal scholars, political scientists, and sociologists, often working together with practitioners, are pursuing investigations of that fall in three themes.

Theme One: Impact and authority of international courts

How do rights advocates promote or contest the authority of international courts? What roles do they play in shaping or deepening the implementation of legal decisions?

Theme Two: External drivers of legal mobilization: repression and funding

How do the mounting repressive measures by many governments against civil society affect whether and how these rights advocates litigate at international human rights courts? What role do global funders play in shaping the strategies and aims of rights advocates, including the selection of the cases they bring to international courts?

Theme Three: Mobilizing human rights strategies

How do rights advocacy organizations develop strategies to build, litigate, and leverage cases at international courts? How do they select the cases they pursue? How do lawyers interact with their victims and with domestic political institutions to lobby for the implementation of international judgments and to instigate broader social changes? What roles are played by advocacy organizations, victims, lawyers, and other groups in transnational networks?