Roughly outlined, this dissertation project plans to conduct an analysis of transnational solidarity movements by examining current examples of global activism, the technologies being employed by these groups, and their potential impact on the international state system. My research seeks to respond to the question of whether, and how, transnational movements are changing the landscape of international relations by establishing themselves as new players or carving new modes of influence in global governance.
I predict this future research will heavily engage with classical and current International Relations theories, with special attention to neo-liberalism as a current dominant model. Traditionally, IR theories claim that large-scale social movement groups have no bearing on the international system, which is untouchable by individual action. However, more recent works on social movements are very willing to acknowledge their potential impact. Keck and Sikkink, authors of Activists beyond Borders, was my first introduction to this, and I plan on exploring their work and the work of their contemporaries further to get a better sense of what has already been hypothesized.
Personally, I suspect that to understand the potential impact movement groups might have on the international system, greater attention must be paid to unpacking the assumptions built into traditional IR perspectives on the international system. Critical engagement with terms like ‘sovereignty’, ‘the state’, ‘nationhood’, ‘international law’, ‘global governance’, and others will be necessary to identify the areas that transnational social movements perhaps spill into, where movements challenge these ideas, or exceed the boundaries of what is considered normal in political science.
In the last few months, I have taken the opportunity to think about these questions more in-depth by conducting a preliminary investigation on one example of transnational solidarity movements. The indigenous rights movement, reviewed very briefly in Keck and Sikkink, was identified by them as a growing movement in the 1990s. By 2021, the movement has made leaps and bounds by establishing an annual Permanent Forum at the UN, passing a UN Declaration, and maintaining global working groups on indigenous rights solidarity and cooperation.
I dove into this research by signing up to be a Canadian indigenous delegate to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) through involvement with the YDC. This experience provided me the opportunity to attend meetings with indigenous groups worldwide, hear directly from the writers if the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and interview numerous activists and members of the Forum. I was able to gain significant insights into the kind of solidarity-building efforts that occurred, and how cooperation has been made possible through modern uses of technology.
However, this also gave me time to reflect on my previous case study, the Sanctuary movement, which is a transnational movement that seeks to shelter and protect undocumented migrants from state deportation based on notions of moral obligation to assist individuals in desperate need. The Sanctuary movement’s roots date as far back as the underground railroad, and its history includes sister cities, and the sans-papiers in France. I did little research on Sanctuary this semester, but my engagement with the Indigenous rights movement indicated to me that while there were many differences between the two cases, there were also significant similarities worth noting.
For example, both movement groups have largely recognized and been willing to play by the rules of the international system. In both Sanctuary and Indigenous Rights movements, the primary literature and content output by the groups is incredibly careful with its language with respect to those concepts of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘the state’ in particular. However, both movements also challenge these concepts by nature of their very existence and the actions they take. Both are seeking significant changes to governance, either by hoping to undercut and alter domestic immigration laws worldwide and international law on refugees, or by seeking to achieve formally recognized rights to self-determination and land sovereignty independent of the state, with conscious internal rejection of the state system.
In some ways, both movements are fighting norms, rather than existing laws; norms that are so embedded into the global governance system that we do not regularly question them. For Sanctuary, the questions might include: why does the state have the power to remove migrants at will? Why do the categories of ‘refugee’ not cover economic migrants sufficiently as to provide them entry into new countries in times of need, and why won’t those categories change? Who is determining those categories and why? For Indigenous rights, the questions include: why does the state have sovereign authority over the lands of indigenous people? Why must the state be relied upon to guarantee indigenous land rights? Why did the UNDRIP have to be passed by the UN in order to establish indigenous human rights?
The questions may be different, but all of them contain themes that are both facilitated by neo-liberalism, and which question neo-liberalism as our model for global order. They can be summarized thusly: why are things the way that they are, and who is imposing them? Can things change? And if yes, can social movements be agents for that change?
This semester, my research has afforded me the clarity to see what an important role technology, media, and the processes of globalization will play on analysis of the social movement work being done. These technologies and processes, including internet connectivity and social media, have facilitated new communication, identity formation, and cooperation that transgresses borders, thereby challenging the traditional IR conceptualization that borders are insurmountable. While IR theory typically holds that the state alone is the only way of understanding the international system, and that the global order is untouchable by anything that occurs within the state, social movement research may pave a new global understanding.
By weaving together a complex tapestry of NGOs, activists, and allies, affected populations bound together by identity formation, and understanding their collective spillover into state politics and global institutions, my research will seek to continue the work of transnational social movement theories by proposing how movements might redefine the future of governance.
This research is enormous, and my prediction is that I will have to focus in and narrow my research onto precise examples of action and activism, what specifically they contest in IR theories, and what might develop in its place. However, the work I have done so far has guided me towards recognizing key distinctive elements of not just the Indigenous rights movement, but the Sanctuary movement as well. In the future of this research, I expect that I will continue conducting interviews with members of both movements in order to get a better sense of how they developed transnationally, with greater specificity and data on the tools and strategies employed. I will be continuing to conduct interviews over the next year, and hopefully with greater output, since I may have the potential to host some in person rather than over zoom.
On my ongoing list of secondary literature to consult include authors who have written about social movements, including Dieter Rucht’s work on coalition-building; Patricia Widener and her colleagues, who speak about cooperation with international organizations and network-building efforts; Zakiya Luna, who writes on alliance work and the reframing of movement work to build better coalitions; Deva Woodly, who has contributed by noting how these tactics and mobilize public opinions; and of course greater reading on Keck and Sikkink and several of their collaborators, who provide examples of the kinds of tactics used to gain momentum. The list is secondary sources to consult is long, but will provide a strong base for understanding the limitations and potentials that have already been explored, and uncover greater insight into what work still needs to be done.
Aside from interviews, my primary source material will include meeting minutes, any pamphlets, brochures, or other literature generated by the Sanctuary movement to understand the language they use and the perspectives they take on domestic and global legal immigration affairs. It will likely also include a deeper unpacking of the UNDRIP document, and any coalition documents between indigenous groups worldwide. In an interview I conducted with one of the contributors to UNDRIP, she mentioned that I should look into the group of indigenous women who banded together during the Beijing 15 Women’s Rights meeting to strategies on indigenous rights. They sent out messages and built connections to other women to spread word about the indigenous rights movement work. If possible, receiving accounts or copies of some of those messages would be fascinating to review.
This research is still in its early stages, and therefore I am still collecting my ideas and trying to piece together how they might relate to wider conceptual work. My work this semester has guided me into putting these thoughts on paper for the first time, starting to narrow down the potential areas I see connection so that I can work towards understanding the most effective areas of theory-development and predictive research. I hope that by engaging so wholly in the examples of the indigenous rights movement and the sanctuary movement, I will be able to glean new understandings of the way global, transnational movements challenge and address commonly held notions about the international system. By building a movement that is trying to change something much bigger than a single law, these movements are tackling the norms that have long dominated political science. I look forward to engaging with them critically to consider what their future influence might be.