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This book examines human rights as political battlefields, spaces that are undergoing constant changes in which political conflicts are expressed by a translation process within networks of interactions. This translation, in turn, contributes to modifying the scope and understanding of human rights. Ultimately, these battlefields express the legitimacy encounter of different versions of human rights in contemporary political practices. The volume thus challenges both the tendency to minimize the changing nature of human rights as well as the struggles emerging from the use of human rights discourses as a legitimization tool. By shifting the focus on what stakeholders do instead of solely on the origin, nature or foundations of human rights, the authors reveal that human rights are not static objects: they are constantly transformed and, as such, affect the horizon of universal rights.



Chapter 1. Introduction: Becoming Human Rights Subjects Through New Practices

The introduction tackles—and problematizes—the paradox of today’s politics of human rights: they are claimed by Northern and Southern countries alike, and by governments as much as by private stakeholders and NGOs. This paradox fuels the reflections investigated in this volume, where human rights—understood as fundamental commitments made by states—represent a reference point for political action and “commonality” regardless of the obvious limits that are exposed on a daily basis. This introduction explains how we explore the struggles and new meanings emerging from the use of human rights as a political tool in the context of a conflicting commonality. This introduction also presents each chapter of the volume.
Gabriel Blouin-Genest, Marie-Christine Doran, Sylvie Paquerot

The Changing Nature of Human Rights and Their Political Boundaries: New Definitions, Longstanding Debates


Chapter 2. Human Rights as Battlefields: Power Relations, Translations and Transformations—A Theoretical Framework

This chapter develops the theoretical and conceptual framework used in this volume. This framework underlines the reality of human rights practices “from below”, and in particular the constant struggles for their construction, appropriation and implementation. The theoretical and conceptual framework outlined in this chapter supports that human rights, before being legally recognized instruments inscribed in international law, are contested objects shaped by struggles, debates and opposition from actors involved in concrete actions, mobilization and activism. Human rights, rather than being created from above, arise from particular settings and through actions, practices, documents and narratives emerging from communities and groups involved in the issues/rights at stake.
Gabriel Blouin-Genest, Marie-Christine Doran, Sylvie Paquerot

Chapter 3. The Gender of Human Rights: The French Debate Over “les droits de l’Homme”

The author offers a much-needed summary of the problem French speakers face when translating the phrase “human rights”, the problem being that the use of the masculine generic (“droits de l’Homme [Man’s rights]” standing for humanity) has been increasingly disputed by defendants of a more inclusive writing, who aim to give more visibility to women so that they may benefit more largely from human rights. The chapter traces back the narrative that led the masculine to be seen as the expression of universality in both grammar and law. It also accounts for the way contemporary feminist mobilizations challenge this institutional discourse. For that purpose, the author draws upon Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory (especially his idea of symbolic violence) as well as the concept of performativity.
Charles Bosvieux-Onyekwelu

Chapter 4. The Right to Water: The Political Function of Human Rights as an Expression of the Contradictions in Globalization

This chapter explores the process of defining/recognizing the right to water and analyzes that process from the perspective of the actor network theory and the sociology of translation. With the conquest of the transnational water market, international economic governance brought the issue of access to water to the forefront of international politics. This politicization, this chapter argues, led to extensive confrontation at the international level. For many actors, the objective was precisely to use the right to water as a weapon against privatization and commodification. The adoption of a resolution by the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council in 2010 finally confirmed that the translation of the original claim occurred from a liberal perspective, momentarily concluding the translation process at work.
Sylvie Paquerot

Chapter 5. Politics of Neutrality, Human Rights and Armed Struggles: The Turkey Example

This chapter focuses on an NGO from Turkey, Insan Haklari Dernegi, to follow how changing discourses of human rights are being translated, adopted, and debated by human rights activists. This brings into focus the political nature of adoption of Amnesty International’s (AI) changes in its mandate after the Yokohama meeting. The history of activists plays a role in the adoption of a dominant discourse of human rights, leading to changes in human rights meanings. Consequently, debates over the adoption of AI’s line indicate the depoliticizing effect of dominant discourses and a local resistance to it. These debates show how consideration of structural problems is being converted into bodily violence of victims, which leads to ethicization of the political this chapter supports.
Ozan Kamiloglu

Overcoming the Frontiers of Discrimination and Structural Violence: Intersectional Struggles of Human Rights from Below and Transformations of Political Space


Chapter 6. Child Prisoners, Human Rights, and Human Rights Activism: Beyond ‘Emergency’ and ‘Exceptionality’—An Australian Case Study

This chapter explores how a network of human rights advocates used the Australian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (2008) to protect children and young people’s human rights. The chapter documents the response of community and legal activist groups which began by rejecting the use by media and politicians of a vocabulary of ‘emergency’ and ‘exceptionality’ before challenging the government in a landmark legal case in Victoria’s Supreme Court heard in May 2017. We explore how the state sovereignty continually constrains or threatens popular sovereignty. Against the liberal self-portrait of a civic culture informed by the rule of law principle, this case highlights the way the political apparatus elevates politics above the law and any regard for human rights.
Judith Bessant, Rob Watts

Chapter 7. Who Is a Child? The Politics of Human Rights, the Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC), and Child Marriage in Nigeria

Despite being one of the most ratified international legal documents in history, battles over the definition of the child in the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) continue to ignite controversies in some countries. These battles, which more or less reflect the politics of human rights in relation to the CRC, have become salient among advocates and opponents of child marriage in Nigeria. Thus, using a conceptual framework that recognizes the politics of human rights as a political battleground, this chapter examines the battles over the definition of a child between advocates and opponents of child marriage in Nigeria. It analyzes how different state and non-state actors and institutions engage in political battles with regards to the definition of the child.
Olabanji Akinola

Chapter 8. Forcibly Sterilized: Peru’s Indigenous Women and the Battle for Rights

This chapter examines Peru’s current status of indigenous peoples’ rights. Specifically, it assesses the state’s respect toward indigenous rights through the issue of forced sterilization of women of indigenous and poor economic backgrounds. Relying on interviews with prominent human rights practitioners and archival sources collected by domestic and international advocacy groups, this chapter proposes an intersectional human rights analysis for understanding the case of forced sterilization of indigenous women. The findings, which include an intersectional analysis of ethnicity, gender, and class domestically and also via international human rights agreements, demonstrate how forced sterilization is perpetuated by the intersecting set of domestic oppressive forces of sexism, racism, and class-based discrimination directed at an economically marginalized population, who are also a vulnerable group in Peru’s patriarchal society.
Ñusta Carranza Ko

Chapter 9. Politicization of Rights-Based Development and Marginalization of Human Rights from Below: The Case of Maternal Health Rights in India

This chapter addresses the question of maternal deaths in India. Some scholars have underscored the political, rather than medical, nature of preventable maternal deaths and have argued for the need to frame the issue as a human rights injustice, rather than a public health failure. This chapter highlights several complexities characterizing the framing of “maternal” deaths as a human rights issue in India, which adversely affect social mobilization surrounding the issue by both competing with and fragmenting ongoing human rights advocacy efforts surrounding “reproductive” health and rights. This contributes to interdisciplinary theoretical debates over using human rights-based approaches to advance women’s rights. They are also noteworthy due to the moral and historical significance of the human rights frame in advancing women’s rights and the growing spotlight on maternal deaths.
Surma Das

Social Contestation and the Broadening of Human Rights’ Meanings


Chapter 10. Indigenous Peoples in Chile: Contesting Violence, Building New Meanings for Rights and Democracy

While acknowledging the importance of the appropriation and mobilization of international law in defending indigenous causes in Chile and elsewhere, our analysis, based on research results collected between 2012 and 2017, suggests that indigenous conceptions of rights and democracy directly contribute to wider social acceptance of human rights struggles in Chile. Current indigenous struggles for rights in Chile are clearly conceived in terms of democratic expansion and directly confront the coherence of Chile’s institutions and its repeated human rights violations—especially the use of the anti-terrorist law—thus actively contributing to the social understanding of human rights: by sharing new meanings and making them available to other grassroots demands for justice and democracy, they contribute significantly to the democratic renewal currently underway in Chile.
Marie-Christine Doran

Chapter 11. Improving HIV/AIDS Drugs Access: A Genealogy of the Human Right to Health from Below

This chapter underlines how the language and practice of human rights have been used to produce, translate, modify, and/or contest the reality of the human right to health. To do so, we use HIV/AIDS, and in particular the question of access to essential drugs and medicines, as our main case study. We underline the key battlefields that have punctuated the improvement of HIV/AIDS drugs access since the late 1990s. HIV/AIDS has been subject to both strong battles to frame it as a human right issue and at the same time falls short to be minimally recognized and implemented. This chapter shows that the human right to health, rather than being imposed from above, emerged from below, especially through the work of civil society, community groups, and activists.
Gabriel Blouin-Genest, Mikey Erb

Chapter 12. Internet Access as Human Right: A Dystopian Critique from the Occupied Palestinian Territory

In his chapter, Cristiano explores the controversial correlation between technology and political freedoms by questioning the inclusion of internet access into the human rights agenda. Drawing from the dystopian case of Palestinian digital rights—tightly held through Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s vise-like jaws of censorship and algorithmic control—the chapter unpacks the conceptual duality common/right in order to open up the question of accessibility to broader digital rights, such as content management and data privacy. In conclusion, it looks at potential alternatives, and the negation thereof, as a way to argue that envisioning human rights in prescriptive terms might detract political freedoms rather than enabling them.
Fabio Cristiano

Chapter 13. Conclusion: Changing Human Right Practices and the Battlefields of World Politics

This concluding chapter contends that in order to understand what human rights are, we should not only be concerned by their inscription in legal instruments or their recognition by particular actors/countries. The emphasis should be placed on what is made of human rights, the reasons, circumstances or contexts that foster their emergence in public discourses and their uses as tools for social struggles by actors. To frame a social or political claim in terms of human rights, we argue in this chapter, means not only to consider the subjects of these rights as victims but also to recognize the subjects of these rights as political subjects. Bringing back the conditions of human rights practices, this chapter opens the discussion to world politics and democracy.
Gabriel Blouin-Genest, Marie-Christine Doran, Sylvie Paquerot


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