The Impact of “Human Rights” in a Global Age


What is the relationship between ‘human rights’ and other conceptions of ‘rights’? What is the nature and impact of human rights? How have alternative narratives of rights shaped how individuals and groups frame inequality, access, or injustice?

In Spring 2015, Social Science Matrix sponsored a seminar that set out to examine these and other questions, through a broad exploration of the concept of human rights. Led by Zain Lakhani and Lasse Heerten, both postdoctoral fellows in in the UC Berkeley Human Rights Program, this Matrix seminar brought together researchers from diverse fields such as geography, rhetoric, history, African American studies, sociology, anthropology, law, and comparative literature. The purpose was “to bring together scholars who are not only geographically and academically diverse, but also explore ‘rights’ in a multiplicity of ways, from traditional ‘human rights’ narratives to decolonization, memory, and land use.”

The core issue was summarized in the group’s proposal: “Since the late twentieth century, ‘human rights’ has become the predominant paradigm for framing inequality and injustice, which facilitates unprecedented levels of attention for oft‐underreported issues. But, as the language of human rights becomes more and more dominant, subsuming other struggles under this framework collapses their nuance, and threatens to yield narrower conceptions of equality and access.”

As an example, the group considered how the “human rights” took the forefront during the so-called Arab Spring uprisings: “Heralded by Western media as the triumph of human rights, citizens… vied for political participation and social justice,” the group wrote. “The terms of these movements, however, reflected a far more diverse and older set of civil and group rights than was reflected by ‘human rights’ language. Though understood within the dominant language of ‘human rights,’ these movements in fact embodied alternative models of rights and citizenship, which challenged the hegemony of individual claims.”

Image by Takver