More than just talk? A literature review on promoting human rights through political dialogue

Hugo Stokke


To what extent does political human rights dialogue contribute to better human rights performance generally? This paper reviews literature on human rights promotion through political dialogue. It focuses on bilateral relations that form part of Norway’s country-level dialogue. It finds there is not much evidence that dialogues are effective. The paper describes current dialogue programmes and calls for more domestic-level inclusivity and greater scope for measuring success in order to create more effective dialogues and improve the evidence base.

The review examines written sources on Norwegian dialogues with Indonesia, China and Vietnam. Informants were contacted to fill in gaps in the literature.

There has been a significant growth in the literature on human rights in recent years. Evidence indicates that dialogue – structured or unstructured – does not seem to play a strong role in explaining why states opt to conform or comply with international human rights treaties.  A ‘spiral’ model is often used to understand progress towards better human rights compliance. In this model, the most crucial shift is from tactical concessions to conceding to the validity of human rights norms at a national level. Other key findings include:

  • While private engagement has been justified as a supplement to multilateral pressure, there is concern that confidential dialogues excludes parliamentary oversight and diasporic groups. NGOs can play a key role as observers and in contributing to technical assistance, however the involvement of some NGOs as dialogue partners would be inappropriate.
  • The EU Guidelines on Human Rights Discourse suggests that topics are largely pre-defined by the EU rather than the result of negotiations between parties. The listing of short-term outcomes that implementing partners are supposed to deliver within a set period further indicates a certain degree of unilateralism.
  • The three Norwegian dialogue programmes are accompanied by technical assistance and partners include academic institutions, relevant government authorities and elements such as visiting scholars programmes. These programmes are thought to raise awareness within the broader public arena that other human rights activities can capitalise on, although there is little information available on how technical cooperation programmes are linked with political dialogues elsewhere.
  • Dialogues tend to require a longer timeframe than development cooperation programmes in order to produce results. However, this can lead to dialogue fatigue. If dialogue occurs as part of a broader engagement then progress on human rights may not be a decisive element of success.

While conditions for successful dialogue largely seem to rest on a balance between domestic and transnational pressure, most dialogue examples take the form of closed or invited spaces. This rarely extends beyond political-diplomatic circles but when it does civil society, parliamentarians and professional associations are involved only to the extent that they have been properly vetted and deemed to conform, and usually have less influence on agenda-setting and representation. Broader participation – focused on informing various domestic parties (NGOs, media etc.) of what is taking place and what, if anything, has been achieved – is often key to an enabling human rights environment.

Further recommendations for successful dialogues noted in the paper include: introducing time limits and establishing benchmarks in order to measure progress towards agreed objectives; targeting states with some history of, and prospects for, liberalisation rather than highly stable repressive regimes; and assessing the efficacy of dialogue against other mechanisms of promoting better human rights performance.


Stokke, H. (2016). More than just talk? A literature review on promoting human rights through political dialogue (Report No. 3). Oslo, Norway: NORAD