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The Possibility and Limits of Human Rights Discourse

Gerard Hauser and Erik Doxtader

The Possibility and Limits of Human Rights Discourse 

Gerard Hauser, University of Colorado at Boulder
Erik Doxtader, University of South Carolina; Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (Cape Town) 

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), but without a mechanism of enforcement.  Not long after, Hannah Arendt identified a paradox that both demonstrates the UDHR’s value and haunts its promise: those most in need of human rights lack for voice and the standing to speak. If language is a basic feature of the human condition, the promotion and protection of human rights opens a set of rhetorical questions that do not admit to singular answers. 

How does human rights discourse work – as discourse? What are the rhetorical grounds, dynamics, and fault lines of human rights advocacy, particularly if David Kennedy is correct in his assessment that the contemporary human rights movement may be less about “enabling a discussion of what it means to be human, of who is human, of how humans might relate to one another” than developing a “knowledge about the shape of emancipation” that “crushes this discussion under the weight of moral condemnation, legal adjudication, textual certainty, and political power.” In this light, how might rhetorical theory not only clarify but help build the intersection of law, conscience, culture and diplomacy that underwrites the theory and practice of human rights? 

Participants in this workshop will have the opportunity to engage with a common set of readings addressed to the rhetorical forms, underpinnings, and dilemmas of contemporary human rights discourse. In addition, the workshop will provide ample time for the discussion of individual participant’s work on the rhetorical questions provoked by the promise and failure of the human rights project.

Questions? Contact Gerard Hauser,

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