Human Rights

Human Rights

Old Problems, New Possibilities

Edited by David Kinley, Wojciech Sadurski and Kevin Walton

Reflecting on the various dichotomies through which human rights have traditionally been understood, this book takes account of recent developments in both theories of rights and in international human rights law to present new ways of thinking about some long-standing problems.

Chapter 4: Human Rights and Political Agency: On Pogge’s Analysis of Human Rights Violations Today

Duncan Ivison

Subjects: law - academic, human rights, law and society, politics and public policy, human rights


Human rights discourse is ubiquitous in global politics and yet the statistics concerning their actual fulfilment are dismal. As Thomas Pogge and others have made clear, nearly one quarter of all human beings today live in extreme or life-threatening poverty. Literally billions of our fellow human beings lack secure access to such things as clean water, medicines, shelter, electricity and education. There are at least two responses one could have to this state of affairs. First that the rise and rise of human rights discourse has helped us grasp the moral abomination of severe poverty and lowered our tolerance for injustice. The challenge is thus to deepen and make real our commitment to human rights. The second response might be one of despair: how can so much suffering be occurring during the very period in which human rights have become so prevalent in global political discourse? Maybe the relentless proliferation of human rights declarations, covenants, charters, commissions and lawyers is actually obfuscating more fundamental injustices. Human rights, in other words, have become ideology and squeezed out other more critical and potentially transformative alternatives. The jury is still out, I believe, on whether it’s time to start ditching human rights. To a certain extent it’s a moot point, given their prominence in contemporary politics. But it is important to remain alert to the way human rights are always implicated in larger structures of power.

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