Human Rights
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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.
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Chapter 6: The particularism of human rights discourse

Patrick Emerton


This chapter argues that the contemporary discourse of human rights – as conceived of in contemporary international law, and in the rich and dynamic politics that accompanies that body of law – is particular rather than universal. That is, human rights discourse has purchase only in some, not all, contexts of human life and of moral and political endeavour. The basic argument to this conclusion is that human rights discourse rests upon, or presupposes, a particular conception of economic, social and political life. Where the facts of economic, social and political life do not conform to that conception, then (so I will argue) human rights discourse no longer plays its professed role, of authoritatively stating the preconditions of ‘freedom, justice and peace’. That is not to say that it might not play some other role, however: what will also be argued is that human rights discourse has a significant capacity to generate pressure to bring the facts of economic, social and political life into conformity with its own presuppositions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but is worth seeing for what it is, rather than mistaking it for something else. I will argue that becoming clear on the way in which human rights discourse is particular rather than universal need not weaken its normative authority, and in fact may actually enhance that authority in certain respects.

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