The proliferation of international human rights treaties, committees and courts over the last sixty years represents enormous achievement. International human rights laws are now asserted throughout the world by individuals of many cultures and traditions. Yet, at the same time international human rights ideas and principles continue to have difficulty in manifesting their relevance in the daily lives of those who are geographically and culturally distant from international institutions Two new books - William Twining’s Human Rights, Southern Voices: Francis Deng, Abdullahi An-Na’im, Yash Ghai, Upendra Baxi, and Helen Stacy’s Human Rights for the 21st Century - address aspects of this paradox and lay the foundations for exciting changes in the international human rights regime to facilitate greater human rights permeation and legitimacy for actors globally in the 21st century. In this Essay, I provide a critical account of some important remaining gaps in the literature on international human rights theory and practice. I argue that notwithstanding the fact that giving voice to those oppressed is a main function of the movement and that the meaning of human rights must be grounded in local culture at grassroots levels, relatively little scholarship bases its analyses on the discourse of the subjects of international human rights law and particularly those actually involved in human rights violations cases in the global South. What are victims’ and legal actors’ conceptions and expectations of human rights and their agendas and experiences in processing their cases? What factors affect their attitudes and behavior in this context? Such knowledge is critical in order to obtain a comprehensive picture of the workings of human rights on the ground. It is also key to enable greater comprehension of local, Southern actors’ needs, epistemologies and micro-realities. As such, bottom-up perspectives from local actors must inform macro-level scholarly conversations on human rights as well as policies aimed at improving respect for human rights at grassroots levels. I provide some such data from a forthcoming book, grounded in interpretive theory and based on the perspectives of legal and lay actors involved in the processing of human rights violation cases of violence against women in India. Actors’ discourses contextualize some of the issues set out in both volumes. The Essay further links actors’ understandings and objectives to norm diffusion theory in the international relations literature and to vernacularization theory in the law and anthropology literature, which like both reviewed books engage the issue of the permeation of human rights standards to grassroots levels. The Essay additionally argues that on the basis that a culturally plural universalism in human rights is an acceptable aim, we are in dire need of a new integrated analytical framework. This framework must be grounded not only in the perspectives of Southern actors, but must simultaneously imbed their epistemologies within the realities of human rights case processing in the legally pluralistic global South. This involves not only formal courts but also informal justice or quasi-legal non-State justice systems processing human rights cases. Drawing on insights from both books, I conclude with a call for more research into Southern actors’ human rights perspectives, including interpretive accounts of their contextual realities. Such knowledge is critical in order to innovatively engage the controversies in international human rights theory and practice and to assist human rights organizations and advocates to become more relevant to the poor and the oppressed. As such, they will be better able to effect realizable change for the subjects of human rights in the global South.
33 Hum. Rts. Q. 509 (2011).