Human rights are now the dominant approach to social justice globally. But how do human rights work? What do they do? Drawing on anthropological studies of human rights work from around the world, this book examines human rights in practice. It shows how groups and organizations mobilize human rights language in a variety of local settings, often differently from those imagined by human rights law itself. The case studies reveal the contradictions and ambiguities of human rights approaches to various forms of violence. They show that this openness is not a failure of universal human rights as a coherent legal or ethical framework but an essential element in the development of living and organic ideas of human rights in context. Studying human rights in practice means examining the channels of communication and institutional structures that mediate between global ideas and local situations.

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“‘Human rights’ has become one of the key ideas of contemporary world-making. This book places it in an open intellectual landscape, where well-informed scholars come together to engage in close scrutiny of its translation into political and legal practice, in a wide range of settings from the Chiapas of the Zapatistas to the Myanmar of the military junta. Their global reach and theoretical sophistication contribute impressively to the vitality of the idea itself, and to the growth of understanding of its uses.”

Ulf Hannerz, Stockholm University