Human Rights & Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice

By Lazarus-Black, Mindie | Law & Society Review, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Human Rights & Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice


Lazarus-Black, Mindie, Law & Society Review


Human Rights & Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. By Sally Engle Merry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. ix+269. $55.00 cloth; $20.00 paper.

"Cultural capital," Bourdieu taught us, denotes critical and diacritical markings of social status, distinguishing us from them. In Human Rights 6? Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice, Merry invites us to rethink culture as capital, with provocative implications. In the new international order, culture, like capital, is at once a resource and the instantiation of complex relationships embedded in time and place. And, in the current global movement to promote human rights and eradicate gender violence, cultures, like different forms of capital, have more or less currency.

Merry begins her analysis with a simple but powerful statement: "In order for human rights ideas to be effective ... they need to be translated into local terms and situated within local contexts of power and meaning. They need, in other words, to be remade in the vernacular" (p. 1). Merry explores the work of creating, exporting, interpreting, and implementing human rights discourse. She begins at the top-at the United Nations (UN)guiding us into the corridors and meeting rooms in which (mostly) women write and debate model legislation (mostly) for nations of the South. The UN officials, nongovernmental organization members, and state representatives involved in this process hold "universal" standards that emphasize personal autonomy, security, and equal rights. In the culture of the human rights activists, these premises are nonnegotiable. Enter next into this world the complex array of cultures as commodity forms in which different use and exchange values compete. Cultures that protect human and gender rights are highly valued; those that permit gender inequity and ignore gender violence are not.

From the UN Merry takes us into the Asia-Pacific region, visiting Hawaii, Delhi, Beijing, Fiji, and Hong Kong, where human rights laws are being implemented. She describes organizations, programs, and networks that promote human and gender rights. She finds common patterns in each place, that the universalizing culture we have encountered at the UN and its human rights discourse homogenizes. Everywhere it carries forward the mantra of the autonomous person, the safe body, and the rights-bearing citizen. Everywhere, too, it uses similar tactics: pressure on states to adopt accords and agreements, surveys to document abuse, training workshops to eradicate violence, hotlines and shelters for victims, counseling sessions for batterers, and T-shirts that advocate freedom from violence.

To be successful, however, local advocates must translate theory into community action. This discussion of the "translators," the people who adapt universal principles to local conditions and institutions, is one of the book's most insightful. How do grassroots activists translate global human rights into a language and praxis that is meaningful to people who are far from the centers where such laws are created?

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