The International Human Rights Regime: Still Part of the Problem?

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The International Human Rights Regime: Still Part of the Problem?

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Title: The International Human Rights Regime: Still Part of the Problem?
Author: Kennedy, David W.
Citation: David W. Kennedy, 2012. The International Human Rights Regime: Still Part of the Problem? In Examining Critical Perspective on Human Rights, ed. Rob Dickinson, Elena Katselli, Colin Murray, Ole W. Pedersen: 19-34. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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Abstract: Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to the editors of this volume, and to the University of Newcastle, for organizing the conversation from which these papers were developed. I was tremendously honored that colleagues would find my short essay on the human rights movement, first published a decade ago, still worthy of discussion. I should start by emphasizing that more than sixty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights there is much to celebrate. Human rights is no longer only an idea. Over the last half century, we have amassed an enormous library of legal norms and aspirational declarations. A complex institutional practice has grown up in the shadow of those pronouncements to promote, defend, interpret, elaborate, implement, enforce, and simply to honor them. There is no question the human rights movement has done a great deal of good, freeing individuals from great harm, and raising the standards by which governments are judged. It has cast light on catastrophic conditions in prisons around the world. Human rights advocacy became at once a professional practice and a movement.

It would be hard to date, but sometime not too long ago, human rights also became a practice of governance. Institutionally, it would be more accurate today to speak of international human rights as a ‘regime’ than as a movement or an idea. Governments have human rights departments, ombudsmen, special rapporteurs, and investigative divisions. If you are a diplomat, you can be assigned human rights as a specialty. If you are a law student, you can aspire to a career in the field of human rights. We have human rights networks, human rights courts, non-governmental organizations, citizens' initiatives, government bureaus, international institutions, private foundations, military staffs, specialized journalists, authors, and media – all in one or another way ‘doing’ human rights. Diplomats denounce one another, citizens write letters and send checks, and a cadre of diverse professionals travels the world denouncing governments and promoting human rights.
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