Transdisciplinary Areas of ExcellenceCitizenship, Rights and Cultural Belonging

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Human Rights

This research theme recognizes that human rights language is powerful and compelling yet fluid and volatile and contains meanings which might be universal or can be understood only in their specific contexts, times and places. It is intended to facilitate the development of new methodologies for the study of human rights that are attentive to concerns for multiple perspectives and especially those that seem to be institutional and "from above" and those that seem to arise "from below," as well as concerns about precursors and justifications of human rights as norms of global justice and of an international human rights regime.

Over the past 65 years, human rights visions and mobilizations have become an essential part of the fabric of change in domestic and international societies. Human rights ideals in various modes of translation have spread across territorial borders and into many different communities and cultures. Their advocacy has helped construct ever more complex international mechanisms of oversight and accountability in the United Nations, support new international law, and promote and sustained permanent international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that defend a wide variety of rights causes. The rights vocabulary contained in new human rights international laws and defended by UN agencies and international advocacy groups has reconfigured local tensions and conflicts; confrontations with human tragedies on the ground broadened the normative and legal definitions of what constitutes specific human rights violations and abuses. At the same time, human rights transformations have fueled strong opposition, which is often as much about fears of the uneven processes of global economic development and Western power as about the universal claims to human rights. Human rights movements thus are intricately connected to changing international debates and conflicts over war and peace, the uses and abuses of power, profits versus sustainable growth and cultural autonomy in the context of universal claims to equality.

Our research theme takes as its starting point the recognition that human rights language is powerful and compelling yet fluid and volatile, containing meanings that might be universal enough or which can be understood only in their specific contexts. Its study requires testing new methodologies that in part combine perspectives "from above" with perspectives "from below," reflecting the amalgamation of insights gleaned from new approaches to international relations and diplomacy, with improvisations on the ground where we explore the lived experiences of local human rights campaigns and disputes as they unfold in their own time and place. We do not assume that these struggles simply reflect the diffusion of ideas from one place to another; we want to capture how local rights struggles are shaped within distinct political, cultural and gender milieus and the local meanings of shared concepts.

A number of questions drive this research theme. The inquiry remains open and flexible and reflects the experimental and contingent nature of challenging research agendas. Some research questions are:

  • How are human rights justified? To what extent can human rights discourses accommodate trajectories of meanings from seemingly incompatible systems of thought?
  • What kinds of tensions arise when attempts are made to integrate perspectives "from above" with perspectives "from below"?
  • Vernacular literatures from around the globe constantly (re)present human conditions that are either overlooked or suppressed in the rhetoric and practices of officials and powerful elites within their local, national or international communities. How can we best explore vernacular and other cultural productions as local processes of negotiating universal moral imperatives?
  • For transnational feminist advocates, how are human rights a shared agenda for cooperation and coalition-building across different spaces and also a source of tension and division? What are the relationships between global women's movements and human rights NGOs?
  • To what extent have donor agendas affected the ability of local communities to defend their interests?
  • How are human rights entangled with state interests, wars and occupations? Similarly, what are the meanings of corporate responsibility in the interconnected economy?
  • How do the supranational financial organizations (among others, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization) engage in human rights, broadly conceived?
  • How do power and resource differentials between countries affect human rights relations?
  • How are human rights adjudicated?
  • Do human rights have a future?

Last Updated: 12/3/13