Where Does the Critique of International Human Rights Stand? An Exploration in 18 Vignettes

  • Frédéric MégretEmail author


This chapter is an attempt to survey the broad field of critical approaches to international human rights law through a series of “vignettes” that give a sense of the diversity of the critique. Based on a stylized account of that critique’s many voices—epistemological, historical, ideological, pragmatic, etc.—it suggests that it has much to contribute to our understanding of a series of challenges that the discipline of international human rights often has a hard time tackling. The chapter finishes by outlining a few leads for what a sustained critical/constructive engagement with human rights could be, one that is neither utopian endorsement nor mere pragmatic detachment but based on a deliberate reactivation of the politics of human rights.


Sexual Minority Critical Approach International Criminal Court Female Genital Mutilation Rome Statute 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Abu-Lughod L (2002) Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others. Am Anthropologist 104:783–790CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ahmed L (1992) Women and gender in Islam. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  3. Allott P (1992) Reconstituting humanity-new international law. Eur J Int’l L 3:219–252Google Scholar
  4. Allott P (2001) Eunomia: new order for a new world. Oxford University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Allott P (2002) The health of nations: society and law beyond the state. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Alston P (1996) Human rights law. Dartmouth, AldershotGoogle Scholar
  7. Alvarez J (1999) Crimes of states/crimes of hate: lessons from Rwanda. Yale J Int Law 24:365Google Scholar
  8. Anghie A (2005) Imperialism, sovereignty, and the making of international law. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Anghie A (1996) Francisco de Vitoria and the colonial origins of international law. Soc Leg Stud 5:321–336Google Scholar
  10. Asad T (2000) What do human rights do? an anthropological enquiry. Theor Event 44:1–33Google Scholar
  11. Benhabib S (2004) The rights of others: aliens, residents, and citizens. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bennoune K (2006) Secularism and human rights: a contextual analysis of headscarves, religious expression, and women’s equality under international law. Colum J Transnat’l L 45:367–426Google Scholar
  13. Bennoune K (2004) Toward a human rights approach to armed conflict: Iraq. U C Davis J Int’l L Pol’y 11:171–228Google Scholar
  14. Bhattacharyya GS (2008) Dangerous brown men, exploiting sex, violence and feminism in the War on terror. Zed Books, LondonGoogle Scholar
  15. Bleiberg B (2005) Unveiling the real issue: evaluating the European court of human rights’ decision to enforce the Turkish Headscarf Ban in Leyla Sahin v. Turkey, 91 Cornell L Rev pp 129–170Google Scholar
  16. Brown W (2002) Suffering the paradoxes of rights. Left legalism/left critique, pp 420–434Google Scholar
  17. Chandler D (2001) The road to military humanitarianism: how the human rights ngos shaped a new humanitarian agenda. Hum Rights Q 23:678–700CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Charlesworth H (2002a) International law: a discipline of crisis. Mod Law Rev 65:377–392CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Charlesworth H (2002b) Author author: a response to David Kennedy. Harv Hum Rts J 15:127–131Google Scholar
  20. Chatterjee DK (2004) The ethics of assistance: morality and the distant needy. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Collingwood V, Logister L (2005) State of the art: addressing the INGO “legitimacy deficit”. Political Stud Rev 3:175–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Collins H (2003) Discrimination, equality and social inclusion. Mod Law Rev 66:16–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Compa L (2008) Labor’s new opening to international human rights standards. WorkingUSA 11:99–123CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Cooke M (2002) Gender and September 11: A roundtable: saving brown women, Signs. J Women Culture Soc 28:468–470Google Scholar
  25. Cornwall A, Nyamu-Musembi C (2004) Putting the “rights-based approach” to development into perspective. Third World Q 25:1415–1437CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Danchin PG (2006) Between rogues and liberals: towards value pluralism as a theory of freedom of religion in international law. Proc Ann Meet Am Soc Int Law 100:414–416Google Scholar
  27. Denike M (2008) The human rights of others: sovereignty, legitimacy, and “just causes” for the “war on terror”. Hypatia 23:95–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Dershowitz A (2001) Is there a torturous road to justice? Los Angeles Times 8 Nov 2001Google Scholar
  29. Dezalay Y, Garth B (2006) From the cold war to Kosovo: the rise and renewal of the field of international human rights. Ann Rev Law Soc Sci 2:231–255Google Scholar
  30. Donnelly J (1998) Human rights: a new standard of civilization? Int Affairs 74:1–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Douzinas C (2007) Human rights and empire. Routledge, CavendishGoogle Scholar
  32. Engle K (1991) Female subjects of public international law: human rights and the exotic other Female. New Eng L Rev 26:1509–1526Google Scholar
  33. Engle K (2007) Calling in the troops: the uneasy relationship among Women’s rights, human rights, and Humanitarian intervention. Harv Hum Rts 20:189–226Google Scholar
  34. Evans T (2005) International human rights law as power/knowledge. Hum Rts Q 27:1046–1068CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Evans T (1998) Human rights fifty years on. Manchester University Press, ManchesterGoogle Scholar
  36. Falk R (2000a) Resisting “globalization-from-above” through “Globalization-from-below”’. In Gills (ed.), Globalization and the politics of resistance, Palgrave, LondonGoogle Scholar
  37. Falk R (2000b) Global civil society and the democratic prospect. In: Holden B (ed), Global democracy: key debates, Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  38. Falk R, Strauss A (2001) Toward global parliament. Foreign Aff 80:212–220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Fekete L (2006) Enlightened fundamentalism? Immigration, feminism and the right. Race Cl 48:1–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Fidler DP (2001) Return of the standard of civilization, Chi J Int’l L 2 pp 137–158Google Scholar
  41. Fraser N (2007) Transnationalizing the public sphere. Theor Culture Soc 24:7–30Google Scholar
  42. Gathii JT (1999) Good governance as a counter insurgency agenda to oppositional and transformative social projects in international law. Buff Hum Rts L Rev 5:107–174Google Scholar
  43. Gauchet M (1980) Les droits de l’homme ne sont pas une politique. Le débat 3:3–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Gauchet M (2000) Quand les droits de l’homme deviennent une politique, Débat pp 258–288Google Scholar
  45. Geer MA (2000) Human rights and wrongs in our own backyard: incorporating international human rights protections under domestic civil rights law—a case study of women in United States prisons. Harv Hum Rts J 13:71–289Google Scholar
  46. Goldberg D, Wagner M (2004) Human rights litigation to protect the peoples of the arctic, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting American Society of International Law, pp 227–229Google Scholar
  47. Goodale M, Baxi U, Cowan J, et al. (2006) Toward a critical anthropology of human rights. Curr Anthropol 47:485–511Google Scholar
  48. Goodhart M (2008) Human rights and global democracy. Ethics Int Aff 22:395–420CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Gross JA (2003) Workers’ rights as human rights. Cornell University Press, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  50. Guilhot N (2005) The democracy makers: human rights and international order. Columbia University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  51. Helfer LR (2002) Overlegalizing human rights: international relations theory and the commonwealth caribbean backlash against human rights regimes. Colum L Rev 102:1832–1911CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Ho C (2007) Muslim Women’s new defenders: women’s rights, nationalism and Islamophobia. In: Contemporary Australia, women’s studies international forumGoogle Scholar
  53. Ho C, Dreher T (2009) Not another Hijab row: new conversations on gender, race, religion and the making of communities. Int Feminist J Pol 11:114–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Ignatieff M, Appiah KA, Gutmann A (2003) Human rights as politics and idolatry. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  55. Kapur R (2006a) Normalizing violence: transitional justice and the Gujarat riots. Colum J Gender L 15:885–928Google Scholar
  56. Kapur R (2006b) Revisioning the role of law in women’s human rights struggles. The legalization of human rights: multidisciplinary perspectives on human rights and human rights law, pp 101–116Google Scholar
  57. Kapur R (2006c) Human rights in the 21st century: take a walk on the dark side. Sydney L Rev 28:665–688Google Scholar
  58. Kennedy D (1984) Spring Break. Tex L Rev 63:1377–1424Google Scholar
  59. Kennedy D (2002) International human rights movement: part of the problem? Harv Hum Rts J 15:101–126Google Scholar
  60. Kennedy D (2004) The dark sides of virtue : reassessing international humanitarianism. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  61. Kennedy D (2006) Sovereignty: responding to Anghie and Aravamudan. Tex Int’l LJ 41:465–468Google Scholar
  62. Kinley D (2007) Human rights fundamentalisms. Sydney L Rev 29:545–576Google Scholar
  63. Koskenniemi M (1990) The pull of the mainstream. Mich Law Rev 88:1946–1962CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Koskenniemi M (2000) L’utilisation du “raisonnable” par le juge international: discours juridique, raison et contradictions. Am J Int Law 94:198–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Koskenniemi M (2005) From apology to utopia: the structure of international legal argument. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  66. Lewis H (2000) Reflections on Blackcrit theory: human rights. Vill L Rev 45:1075–1090Google Scholar
  67. Luban D (1980) Just war and human rights. Philos Public Aff 9:160–181Google Scholar
  68. Macklem P (2007) What is international human rights law-three applications of a distributive account. McGill LJ 52:575–604Google Scholar
  69. Macklem P (2006) The wrong vocabulary of right: minority rights and the boundaries of political community. In Sajo A (ed), Abuse: the dark side of fundamental rights, Eleven International Publishing, UtrechtGoogle Scholar
  70. Mandel M (2004) How America gets away with murder: illegal wars, collateral damage and crimes against humanity how. Pluto Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  71. Mattei U, Lena J (2000) US jurisdiction over conflicts arising outside of the United States: some hegemonic implications. Hastings Int’l Comp L Rev 24:381–400Google Scholar
  72. Meckled-García S, Cali B (2006) The legalization of human rights: multidisciplinary perspectives on human rights and human rights law. Psychology Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  73. Mégret F (2008a) The Disabilities Convention human rights of persons with disabilities or disability rights? Hum Rights Q 30:494–516CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Mégret F (2008b) The Disabilities Convention: towards a holistic concept of rights. Int J Hum Rights 12:261–277CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Mégret F (2009a) Civil disobedience and international law: sketch for a theoretical argument, Canadian Yearbook of international law, pp 143–192Google Scholar
  76. Mégret F (2009b) Comrades and fellow South Africans…: the end of apartheid and the many strands of an international law “event.” In Johns J, Pahuja (eds) Event: the force of international law, Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  77. Mégret F (2010) International human rights and legal pluralism: a research agenda. In: Provost, Sheppard (eds.) Human rights and legal pluralism, forthomingGoogle Scholar
  78. Mégret F (2011) ICC, R2P and the security council’s evolving interventionist toolkit, Finnish Yearbook of International Law, forthcomingGoogle Scholar
  79. Mégret F (2012a) Abolition de l’esclavage et colonisation: de l’ambiguïté de l’œuvre de civilisation facilitée par le droit des gens, African Yearbook of International Law, forthcomingGoogle Scholar
  80. Mégret F (2012b) Is there ever a right to one’s own legal system? Possible rights foundations for legal pluralism, Israel Law Review 45, forthcomingGoogle Scholar
  81. Mégret F, Hoffmann F (2003) The UN as a human rights violator? Some reflections on the United Nations changing human rights responsibilities? Hum Rights Q 25:314–342CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Mégret F, Pinto F (2003) “Prisoners” Dilemmas’: The Potemkin villages of international law? Leiden J Int Law 16:467–490CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Merry SE (2006) Human rights and gender violence: translating international law into local justice. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  84. Merry SE, Stern RE, Deveaux M, et al. (2005) The female inheritance movement in Hong Kong. Curr Anthropol 46:387–409Google Scholar
  85. Mill JS (2006) A few words on non-intervention. New Engl Rev 27:252–264Google Scholar
  86. Moyn S (2010) The last utopia: human rights in history. Belknap Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  87. Mutua M (2001) Savages, victims, and saviors: the metaphor of human rights. Harv Int’l LJ 42:201–246Google Scholar
  88. Mutua M (2002) Terrorism and human rights: power, culture, and subordination. Buff Hum Rts L Rev 8:1–14Google Scholar
  89. Mutua MW (1995) The ideology of human rights. Va J Int’l L 36:589–658Google Scholar
  90. Nardin T (2000) International pluralism and the rule of law. Rev Int Stud 26:095–110CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Nesiah V (2009) The specter of violence that haunts the UDHR: the turn to ethics and expertise. Md J Int’l L 24:135–154Google Scholar
  92. Noll G (2003) The exclusionary construction of human rights in international law and political theory. SSRN eLibraryGoogle Scholar
  93. Nyamu-Musembi C (2005) Towards an actor-oriented perspective on human rights. In: Kabeer N (ed) Inclusive citizenship: meanings and expressions, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, pp 31–49Google Scholar
  94. Oberleitner G (2007) Global human rights institutions: between remedy and ritual. Polity Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  95. Orford A (2003) Reading humanitarian intervention: human rights and the use of force in international law. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Otto D (2009) The exile of inclusion: reflections on gender issues in international law over the last decade. Melb J Int’l L 10:11–26Google Scholar
  97. Petman J (2011) Egoism or altruism? No Foundations 373Google Scholar
  98. Pogge T (2008) World poverty and human rights: cosmopolitan responsibilities and reforms. Polity PressGoogle Scholar
  99. Rajagopal B (2006) Counter-hegemonic international law: rethinking human rights and development as a third world strategy. Third World Q 27:767–783CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Rajagopal B (2003) International law from below: development, social movements, and third world resistance international law. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Romany C (1993) Women as aliens: a feminist critique of the public/private distinction in international human rights law. Harv Hum Rts J 6:87–126Google Scholar
  102. Rorty R, Shute S, Hurley S (1993) On human rights: the Oxford amnesty lectures. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  103. Roth K (2004) War in Iraq: not a humanitarian intervention. In: Human Rights Watch, world report: human rights and armed conflictGoogle Scholar
  104. Saito NT (2002) Asserting plenary power over the other: Indians, immigrants, colonial subjects, and why U.S. jurisprudence needs to incorporate international law. Yale L Pol’y Rev 20:427–480Google Scholar
  105. Sanders D (1996) Getting lesbian and gay issues on the international human rights agenda. Hum Rts Q 18:67–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  106. Schabas WA (2007) Lex specialis—belt and suspenders—the parallel operation of human rights law and the law of armed conflict, and the conundrum of jus ad Bellum. Isr L Rev 40:592–613Google Scholar
  107. Shamir R (2004) The de-radicalization of corporate social responsibility. Crit Sociol 30:669–689CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  108. Shelton D (1991) Human rights, environmental rights, and the right to environment? Stan J Int’l L 28:103–138Google Scholar
  109. Slim H (2002) By what authority? the legitimacy and accountability of non-governmental organizations. J Humanitarian Assist 10:1–12Google Scholar
  110. Stammers N (1995) A critique of social approaches to human rights. Hum Rights Q 17:488–508CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  111. Starr S (2007) Extraordinary crimes at ordinary times: international justice beyond crisis situations? Nw U L Rev 101:1257–1314Google Scholar
  112. Stein MA (2007) Disability human rights. Cal L Rev 95:75–121Google Scholar
  113. Tamir Y (1996) Hands off clitoridectomy. Boston Rev 21:21–22Google Scholar
  114. Thomas KR, Small J (2003) Human rights and state immunity: is there immunity from civil liability for torture? Netherlands Int Law Rev 50:1–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  115. Tushnet M (1983) Essay on rights. Tex L Rev 62:1363–1404Google Scholar
  116. Waldron J (1993) A right-based critique of constitutional rights. Oxford J Leg Stud 13:18–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  117. Watkin K (2004) Controlling the use of force: a role for human rights norms in contemporary armed conflict. Am J Int Law 98:1–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  118. Weiler JHH (2001) Human rights, constitutionalism and integration: iconography and fetishism. Int’l LFD Int’l 3:227–238Google Scholar
  119. Wilde R (2010) Compliance with human rights norms extraterritorially: ‘human rights imperialism’? Liber Amicorum Vera Gowlland-Debbas. International Law and the Quest for its Implementation, pp 319–348Google Scholar
  120. Williams RAJ (1990) Encounters on the frontiers of international human rights Law: redefining the terms of indigenous peoples’ survival in the world, Duke, pp 660–704Google Scholar

Copyright information

© T.M.C. ASSER PRESS, The Hague, The Netherlands, and the author(s) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Law, Canada Research Chair in the Law of Human Rights and Legal PluralismMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada

Personalised recommendations