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Series introduction | Liberalism and the media | Liberalism and education |
Liberalism, race and gender

Liberalism and human rights

Kate Nash, strand editor

Kate Nash, editor of the liberalism
and human rights strand

Human rights are very often seen on the critical Left as limited to and by liberalism. This remains the case today, when the relationship between political and economic liberalism is again to the fore as the rule of law is seen as a solution to conflict and repression, and market fundamentalism as a solution to economic stagnation. This strand brings together articles by authors from across the world to consider the relationship in a number of very different contexts.

You will certainly find here well-argued articles by eminent political theorists that lay out critiques of human rights as exclusionary and partial, and that map how liberalism’s blind-spots are being reproduced in the rhetoric of human rights. But in other cases you will be asked to consider whether human rights sometimes fall far short of liberalism; where constitutions that reflect international human rights norms actually legally support state repression, for example. And there are further challenges to the view that human rights are nothing but liberalism dressed up for the twenty-first century when we consider movements that aim to realise economic and social rights. In such cases human rights look more like socialism than liberalism. What I hope you will find here is a sense of the pluralism and diversity of human rights and of the political contexts in which they are invoked today. We look forward to your comments – both critical and sympathetic. If human rights are ever to realise the promise of universality they seem to offer, it will only happen through work on the imagination as well as on the structuring of resources, material and moral. This strand is intended to provoke discussion on that promise and those possibilities.

Latest articles in date order:

The role of 'best examples' in human rights

It is not only ideology that shapes human rights discourse but also reference points, 'best examples', cases that at their most successful combine a victim, a perpetrator and a right.

Intervention - imperialism or human rights?

Are we caught between support for liberal intervention which often has disastrous, unintended, but often foreseeable consequences, on the one hand, and an anti-interventionism where we simply ignore the repression faced by many people, on the other? 

The European Court of Human Rights: would Marx have endorsed it?

The ECHR still struggles to reconcile effective rights with the deep structures of a market economy.

Who is the human in human rights?

Human rights discourse relies on an abstracted human who is too often male and white. The challenge is to develop a human rights politics that is inclusive without obliterating differences.

Human rights and its inherent liberal relativism

Liberal relativism that celebrates civil and political rights is a neo-colonial construct which should be understood as such. What we see is really competing relativisms prioritised by the whims of private and public donors.

Sexual subalterns, human rights and the limits of the liberal imaginary

From within the liberal imaginary, human rights appear to be something that ‘we cannot not want’, even though they cannot give us what we want.

Rights. What are they good for?

The rights-bearing individual emancipated us from feudal absolutism in Europe. But that historical moment has passed with empire, and has the language of rights now lost its relevance?

Rights and power: illiberal constitutions of Latin America

Latin American constitutions are exemplary in going beyond liberalism in the way they formulate human rights. But they are at the same time illiberal in the powers they afford the executive to limit political freedoms.

Human rights and the paradoxes of liberalism

Human rights are a hybrid of liberal law, morality and politics. Their ideological power lies in their ambiguity, not in their adherence to liberal values of individual freedom.

Human rights: from universalism to pragmatism

Human rights have often been critiqued for their abstract universal claims, but human rights approaches are now beginning to lose their universalist baggage in the shift towards more pragmatic approaches of community empowerment. A response to Kate Nash's article.

Human rights, markets, states, and movements

Are human rights nothing but liberal? If so, how do we understand mobilisations for human rights against neoliberal marketization?

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