When Human Rights Fail: Paradoxes and Problems in the Practice of Human Rights

Human rights discourse is mobilized by activists, bureaucrats, and diplomats across the world. From the most grassroots social movements to the international conference rooms and halls of the United Nations, individuals and organizations argue for specific actions, protections, or interventions rooted in human rights. While these claims offer a variety of discursive, political, and strategic benefits, which may be deemed successful, at other times human rights “fail.” There are examples of asymmetries of the  vernacularization of human rights in which local activists cannot successfully “appropriate, translate, and remake transnational discourses” relevant to the communities in which they work while others are much more adept (Merry 2006:3) . The human rights system’s conceptualizations of humanness, has also meant that race, gender, socioeconomic class, and sexual orientation (among many other categories) may be used to deny certain groups human rights because they are not human enough to claim such rights (Schippers 2018; Wynter 2003). Human rights discourses may be mobilized to hurt the very people they claim to protect (Cheng 2011).

Our panel seeks papers that interrogate how, why, or when human rights “fail” through an ethnographic lens. This broad premise attempts to locate the variety of situations in which an anthropology of human rights can deal critically with the human rights system, the practice of human rights “on the ground,” human rights’ effectiveness, and the paradoxes they entail. We are soliciting papers that engage with human rights ethnographically, rather than theoretically, to demonstrate the nuance of human rights in activist and social movement settings. Our goal is not to tear down the human rights system, but rather to use ethnography to think about how else human rights are being conceptualized, mobilized, and practiced, as well as how these new conceptualizations transform human rights.

Our discussant will be Professor Kamari Clarke, Carleton University.

Please send your proposed abstract (max 250 words), along with affiliation, current status, and contact information to Nathan Madson (nhm248@nyu.edu) and Amarilys Estrella (ae697@nyu.edu) by March 31, 2019 3PM EST.

We look forward to your submissions!


All Annual Meeting participants must be paid Annual Meeting registrants (by April 10 at 3 pm ET) AND have active memberships through November 24. Anthropologists outside of the U.S. or Canada, or non-anthropologists, may request a Membership Exemption, but meeting registration is still required. Membership exemptions must be requested by Wednesday, March 20. For financial assistance with registration, please complete the Program Chair Waiver application prior to Wednesday, March 20. The completion of an application does not guarantee a waiver will be awarded.


Cheng, Sealing, 2011. The Paradox of Vernacularization: Women’s Human Rights and the Gendering of Nationhood. Anthropological Quaterly 84(2): 475–505.

Wynter, Sylvia, 2003. Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.

Merry, Sally Engle. 2006. Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schippers, Birgit, ed. 2018 Critical Perspectives on Human Rights. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.