Between Hope and Critique: Human Rights, Social Justice and Re-Imagining International Law from the Bottom Up
At a time when many social movements mobilise human rights to frame their advocacy, a growing body of critique has questioned the viability of human rights as a vehicle for social justice. This article argues that, while some critique takes aim at an encompassing human rights “project”, the contested nature of human rights calls for more granular analyses that consider the diverse constellations of actors, agendas, arenas and approaches connecting human rights to social justice. ~Taking a socio-legal approach, the article examines indigenous peoples’ use of regional human rights systems to defend or reclaim their ancestral lands, and agrarian movements’ advocacy for the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. These two case studies provide insights on the ways in which social actors, including those outside the mainstream “human rights movement”, have appropriated human rights to reclaim land, resources and territories, and renegotiate control over development pathways. ~The findings suggest that, while critiques of rights identify real problems, there is a need to broaden current debates, recognise the diversity of human rights forms, and more fully consider the practices of actors located outside the human rights mainstream. By shifting the focus from institutionalised human rights actors and frameworks, to rights-claiming as a practice of contestation, it might become possible to ask different questions about whether and how human rights can sustain emancipatory action.