Receptualizing the Role of Law in Human Rights

GLS received a grant from the International Division to carry out a seminar series on "Reconceptualizing the Role of Law in Human Rights.  While the legalization of human rights has yielded a powerful political tool, this paradigm has obscured from view how law works on the ground, outside the purview of formal legal institutions and de-emphasizes the more aspirational, and controversial, aspects of human rights discourse.  One approach is to move away from the formal legal realm, encompassing studies of law and human rights in everyday life as well as examining how the discourse of law and rights interacts with other discourses.  Another approach is to explore the historical and political nature of human rights law and practice itself.  Yet another is to examine how, despite the dominance of the right/violation paradigm, legal institutions are suffused with social and political rights, revealing law’s counter-hegemonic use and potential.

In order to explore these issues the Global Legal Studies Center organized a workshop in December 2009 on the theme “”Reconceptualizing Law and Human Rights” which brought together a group of scholars in the fields of political science, anthropology, history, law and political theory.  The main focus was on the development of new approaches to the empirical study of law and human rights.   While several alternative approaches to human rights were proposed including the vulnerability/resilience framework and a common sense approach, everyone still believed that these approaches would supplement, rather than supplant the right/violation paradigm.  Everyone agreed that, despite its shortcomings, the legal framework still played a critical role in protecting human rights.  It was also pointed out that the human rights legal framework facilitated the protection of rights in other areas such as the environment at international, regional and national levels.  The international human rights framework has also influenced regional regimes such as the Inter-American System of Human Rights which, in turn, has influenced national institutions, particularly the judiciary.  Moreover, international human rights law has become a great tool in the hands of civil society groups which have regularly used these standards in litigation as well as in their advocacy work.  They have also lobbied for the reform of national laws to conform to international human rights standards.

In order to continue the important and stimulating discussion we began in December 2009, five themes were identified as possible topics for exploration:

  • Regional human rights regimes (Inter-American, African and European) and their influence on international and national systems

  • International human rights law and the environment

  • Articulating socio-economic rights and the role of the judiciary

  • International human rights law, participation, and civil society actors

  • Emerging rights

Events organized:

  • October 26, 2010: "Learning to Use Law in addressing Gender Inequalities in South Africa," by Professor Catherine Albertyn, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and GLS Visiting Scholar, in the series "Reconceptualizing the Role of Law in Human Rights, sponsored by GLS, African Studies Program and the International Division, Noon-1:30pm, Lubar Commons (7200 Law).

  • December 3, 2010: Joint Workshop on Reconceptualizing the Role of Law in Human Rights and Sawyer Seminar on Vulnerability and Resilience: Rethinking Human Rights for the 21st Century on the theme “Human Rights and the Environment,” 8:30-2:30, North Hall, Department of Political Science, speakers: Professor Hari Osofsky (University of Minnesota), Professor Richard P. Hiskes (Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut), Professor Philippe Cullet (SOAS, University of London) and other speakers pending, sponsored by the Global Legal Studies Center, Human Rights Initiative and the International Division.

  • February 25, 2011: “Gender, Justice and Victim Rights: Gendered Perspective of Victims in the Criminal Justice System," WI Journal of Law, Gender and Society annual symposium, 9-11:30 and 2-4pm, Lubar Commons,  speakers: Tim Gruenke, LaCrosse County District Attorney and member of the Wisconsin Crime Victims Rights Board; Ben Greer, former VAWA Webinar Coordinator & Research Attorney for the California District Attorneys Association; Professor Jeffrey G. Purvis, San Joaquin College of Law; Seema Mohapatra, Visiting Assistant Professor of Law, Barry University School of Law; and Benedetta Faedi Duramy, Associate Professor of Law, Golden Gate University School of Law, Co-Sponsored by the Global Legal Studies Center under its seminar series "Reconceptualizing the Role of Law in Human Rights" with support from the International Division, the International Institute and Global Studies.

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