Expanding Rights in Hard Times: A Pragmatist Political Program


iStock-140387494-paper_peopleAlison Brysk addresses the ever-expanding notion of human rights within the 21st century

Human rights have fallen on hard times, yet they are needed now more than ever. Despite historic advances in human rights law and mobilization, unprecedented numbers of people suffer war crimes, persecution, gender violence, and backlash against rights defenders. There are an estimated 65 million refugees, one out of three women suffer gender violence, and illiberal right-wing governments and movements threaten civil liberties and minority rights even in developed democracies. While critics declaim the “end times” of human rights as too legalistic and cosmopolitan to respond to these affronts, human rights are still our best hope to construct a pathway to human dignity – as a pragmatist political program. But rights work only when we see them as a question, not an answer.

Human rights have proven to be the most sustainable basis for solidarity
in the face of violence and oppression

After several generations of measured success and unexpected shortfalls, the future of human rights lies in fostering the dynamic strength of human rights as evolving political practice. People all over the world – from Amazonian villages to Iranian prisons – use human rights to gain recognition, campaign for justice, and save lives. With all of its limitations, human rights have proven to be the most sustainable basis for solidarity in the face of violence and oppression. The question is not whether or why to expand rights to meet the challenges of our age – the question is how.

Constructing human rights in the 21st century involves expanding rights claims, voices, mechanisms, and responsibilities. New actors and voices such as indigenous peoples, LGBTQ movements, and descent discrimination have gained important recognition and reforms worldwide. Human rights claims have expanded from the historic emphasis on civil-political rights to fully embrace socio-economic campaigns on labor rights, the right to food, water, as well as human security issues like gender violence. These expansions operate through legal and social framing, representation, and cross-cutting coalitions in areas such as rights-based development and women, peace, and security.

Meanwhile, the international human rights regime has moved beyond legal and top down global institutions to multi-faceted endeavors such as boycotts, rights-based public policy, and multiple layers of governance—including an important role for regional institutions like the Inter-American Human Rights Court. Accountability for the increasing range of violations by non-state perpetrators is building the doctrine of “due diligence” to increase state responsibility, which has reshaped national response in dozens of states. All levels of abusive authority, from international organizations to transnational corporations, from tribal councils to violent partners, are now potentially responsible for human rights in numerous and growing instances. Perhaps most important, human rights has moved from a legal doctrine to a worldwide movement that crosses cultures and levels of development. Human rights campaigns and alliances play multiple roles from monitoring to advocacy to grassroots social transformation to implementation and public policy.

The greatest remaining challenge for constructing human rights is the unfinished business of the citizenship gap. As Hannah Arendt warned*, human rights still ultimately depend on membership in a willing state-and “people out of place” like migrants and minorities still face the greatest dangers. However, citizens of established states have gained greater traction within and across borders than she anticipated. Even as illiberal nationalist tides sweep the globe, human rights can and must continue to expand through citizens acting globally to keep asking the questions: who is human? what is right? and who is responsible?

*Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Alison Brysk is Chair, Global Studies Department and Mellichamp Chair of Global Governance, University of California, Santa Barbara


Expanding Human Rights: 21st Century Norms and Governance edited by Alison Brysk and Michael Stohl

NEW! Paperback version due June 2018

Read Chapter 1 free online


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