Introduction to Dossier on Human Rights Rituals

Abstract: In this special issue, four essays draw on distinct traditions in law, literary studies, history, and anthropology to explore international human rights law through a lens rarely used in this domain—that of ritual. This introductory essay explains the significance of collective rituals as socially structuring events that embody power relations. It considers the role of ritual in instigating or strengthening community, and as a mode of governance that may circumvent the emergence of more violent regimes. It discusses how law generally is authorized and Continue reading → Continue reading →

Sharpening the Vigilance of the World: Reconsidering the Russell Tribunal as Ritual

Abstract: In the late 1960s Russell-Sartre Tribunal gathered a group of philosophers, lawyers, activists and historians to assess the culpability of the United States for war crimes committed in Vietnam. While traditionally dismissed by commentators as a “show trial,” the gathering provided inspiration for numerous twentieth and twenty-first century “peoples’ tribunals.” This article argues that both the legal and theoretical dimensions of the initial Tribunal’s work have been underappreciated. Specially, the piece builds on Talal Asad’s theory of “ritual” to show how the tribunal cultivated Continue reading → Continue reading →

Two Cheers for Ritual: The UN Committee Against Torture

Abstract: This paper asks, what might it mean to take seriously the claim that human rights processes are a form of ritual? It does so through an ethnographic analysis of the work of the UN Committee Against Torture. The apparent self-referentiality of human rights regimes has led some critics to argue that they have become an increasingly calcified process. This paper argues though that the formal ritual of the UN human rights monitoring process can create space for the moral imagination. More specifically, the rituals Continue reading → Continue reading →

The Beginning of Human Rights: The Ritual of the Preamble to Law

Abstract: There is something distinctly ritualistic about the Preamble in international human rights instruments: in its repetitiveness both within and across legal instruments; in its logical ordering of the universe, connecting what has gone before (‘whereas’: human nature, crisis, recognition) with what must follow (‘therefore’: the law, this law); in its very style and representation. This suggests that the Preamble is more than a literally useful passage at the start of the text for lawyers to get to the law, but also something like a Continue reading → Continue reading →

The Rites of Human Rights at the United Nations

Abstract: Recent histories of human rights have emphasized the importance of the 1970s as the “breakthrough” moment for human rights. This article assesses this claim and proposes a more variegated and paradoxical account. It revisits the UDHR on its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1973, and surveys the fractured set of meanings that “human rights” had acquired by that time within the United Nations, national contexts and in civil society. The article points however to the shared appreciation of the power of human rights language and the Continue reading → Continue reading →

Beyond Good Intentions: Responsible and Effective Advocacy in the Digital Age

  Abstract: Three important new books explore events like these and the dynamics of transnational advocacy and humanitarianism in the Internet age. In these three books, several crosscutting themes about transnational advocacy emerge. One is the locus of advocacy and what role international actors can and should play in supporting local actors on the ground. A second theme that the books tackle is the relative place of norms and treaties as the vehicle for achieving change in the world, as well as other forms of Continue reading → Continue reading →

The “Great Doctrine of Human Rights”: Articulation and Authentication in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. Antislavery and Women’s Rights Movements

Angelina Grimké, the abolitionist and women’s rights reformer from South Carolina, faced a paradox in 1837. Having recently embarked on a successful antislavery speaking tour with her sister Sarah, both women had been derided for addressing audiences of women and men. The sisters’ gradual awakening to the tenets of antislavery—influenced by their earlier experiences on the Grimké family plantation, combined with years of personal anxiety in the face of the restrictive separate spheres ideology—led them to find equivalences between abolitionism and women’s rights. To justify Continue reading → Continue reading →

Humanitarianism Was Never Enough: Dorothy Thompson, Sands of Sorrow, and the Arabs of Palestine

If governments get the idea that they can expropriate their citizens and turn them loose on the kindness of the rest of the world, the business will never end. A precedent will be created; a formula will have been found. —Dorothy Thompson, “Escape in a Frozen World,” Survey Graphic, 1939 “Politics,” said Aristotle, “is the art of discerning what is good for mankind.” The problem of the Arab refugee can make or break support for the west in the most critical strategical area, economically and Continue reading → Continue reading →

Life, Story, Violence: What Narrative Doesn’t Say

“Go ahead and torture me. It will take my death to make me talk, and for your information I’m sorry for every bit of cooperation I have offered in the past,” I said. “First of all, your cooperation was achieved by force. You didn’t have a choice. Nor will you in the future: I am going to make you talk,” ——— said. —Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary To name, to give names that it will on occasion be forbidden to pronounce, such is the originary Continue reading → Continue reading →

On Vernacular Rights Cultures and the Political Imaginaries of Haq

Around the globe, we are witnessing multitudinous struggles over rights. Several of these are collective struggles by marginal and dispossessed groups over what Walter Mignolo has termed “life rights” with some resisting precarity and dispossession heralded in by neoliberal developmentalism and its championing of privatization of natural resources: mountains, minerals, forests, rivers and streams; while others are struggling to redefine the substantive content of existing formal constitutional guarantees.1 The key question this essay asks is: How do we conceptually capture these rights struggles? In South Continue reading → Continue reading →