In Defense of Human Rights

By Bennoune, Karima | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, November 2019 | Go to article overview

In Defense of Human Rights


Bennoune, Karima, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


TABLE OF CONTENTS    I. INTRODUCTION                                  1210  II. RESPONSES TO THE KEYNOTE ADDRESSES            1216        A. Samuel Moyn: Human Rights and Majority           Politics                                 1216        B. John Tasioulas: Saving Human Rights           from Human Rights Law                    1223 III. IN DEFENSE OF HUMAN RIGHTS                    1228  IV. CONCLUSION                                    1234 

I. INTRODUCTION

2019 is a critical moment for considering the future of international human rights law. Embattled humanity--living in a world of extremists of all kinds, of proliferating claims of cultural relativism and cultural excuses for human rights violations, a world threatened by catastrophic climate change, where hate is being normalized, inequalities are growing, public space is being privatized, and where the impulse to censor thrives--desperately needs full implementation of its universal human rights, which are both grounded in international human rights law and transcend that body of law. (1) Yet, antirights actors continue to hold power and take power around the world in many states and societies. (2) The international human rights system is threatened by budget cuts and loss of political support. (3) Human rights discourse and international human rights legal obligations are disappearing in many intergovernmental and international debates. (4) Official rhetoric increasingly attacks, questions, and undermines rights at a basic level, while impunity for gross abuses remains rampant. (5)

At the same time, many significant positive advances in human rights have been made, including through creative use of human rights law. These include local initiatives aimed at increasing understanding and tolerance; (6) creative efforts by human rights defenders to improve compliance and accountability; (7) new possibilities and avenues for global cooperation in the promotion of rights; (8) multiplying challenges to sexual harassment and sex discrimination; (9) significant international, regional, and national legal victories, (10) however limited; and growing recognition of areas of human rights, such as the rights of persons with disabilities, (11) of peasants, (12) and of LGBTI persons; (13) and rights in relation to crucial topics, such as the environment. (14)

In 2019, any consideration of international human rights law must take into account all of these developments, and must weigh the meaning and nature of human rights broadly, both within the law and beyond the law. The field of human rights is not only a vital academic discipline; it also represents a critical set of tools in the struggle for human dignity, tools that are urgently needed around the world today at the international and the local levels. Theory needs to inform and be informed by practice as never before, and further cooperation, dialogue, and exchange are needed between practitioners and scholars, whose domains are and must be understood to be overlapping and mutually enriching.

Critical thinking can be a part of ensuring the best future course for global struggles for human rights. (15) Human rights norms, and the practice of human rights institutions, organizations, and advocates, are not above criticism or scrutiny, are acceptable topics for debate, and should be held to the standards they themselves promote. (16) Nothing in this Article is meant to suggest otherwise. Indeed, critical thinking is itself a key human right, art of the rights to freedom of expression, to thought and conscience, and to education and academic freedom, as well as being vital in the pursuit of knowledge, and to advancing debate and understanding. (17) It can make human rights law work better. In this regard, it is a privilege to have an opportunity to comment on two thought-provoking keynote Articles engaged in the enterprise of critical thinking about the future of international human rights law. …

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