Issue 9.1


Our new issue has a dossier on human rights ritualism as its centerpiece, from which we are featuring Zachary Manfredi’s piece on the Russell Tribunal. Also in the issue are three articles on atrocity propaganda, Oxfam’s history, and the uses and abuses of measurement in global malnutrition assessment. Finally, the issue rounds out with a review on recent books on humanitarian advocacy.


Oxfam and the Problem of NGO Aid Appraisal in the 1960s

Abstract: During the United Nations’ first Development Decade (the 1960s), NGOs forged a place for themselves within the professional world of long-term development. Within this context, one British organisation – Oxfam – asked a straightforward question: does aid work? To answer, it appointed its own ‘aid appraiser’. This article examines what happened when the organisation was confronted with his reports. The self-perpetuating nature of development work has long been observed. How Oxfam responded to self-critique shows that the capacities for organisations to engage in self-assessment, Read More »

Measuring Malnutrition: The History of the MUAC Tape and the Commensurability of Human Needs

Abstract: The bracelet for assessing acute malnutrition (MUAC Strip) has become the signature tool of humanitarian aid: it is widely used for screening children into feeding programs, for producing statistics on nutritional status and for mapping emergencies. This article takes this tool as an entry point into the history of humanitarian expertise, following the medical doctors who invented the strip from the 1960s until today. Humanitarian organizations often argue that they address needs all over the world because human needs are universal per se. However, Read More »

A Theory of Atrocity Propaganda

Abstract: This essay offers a theory of atrocity propaganda and surveys strategies for countering it. I first review examples of atrocity propaganda disseminated before, during, and after WWI. I then explain how the linguistic tactic of persuasive definition makes it difficult to confirm, or rebut, reports of atrocities. Although both International Criminal Law and International Human Rights Law restrict willfully false stories of enemy misdeeds, these restrictions don’t solve the core problem of distinguishing legitimate and illegitimate reports of atrocities. The essay concludes by outlining Read More »

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 Read More »

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 Read More »

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 Read More »

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 Read More »

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 Read More »

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 Read More »