Towards a Study of Human Rights Practitioners

Human Rights Review 12 (2):173-189 (2011)
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The expansion of human rights provisions has produced an increasing number of human rights practitioners and delineated human rights as a field of its own. Questions of who is practicing human rights and how they practice it have become important. This paper considers the question of human rights practice and the agency of practitioners, arguing that practice should not be conceived as the application of philosophy, but instead approached from a sociological point of view. Whatever the structuring effect of political institutions, human rights is being defined more expansively by practitioners. The weakness of international institutions and the interpretive scope of human rights discourse produce significant opportunity for practitioners to interpret the meaning of human rights. Our exploratory interviews of a small sample of practitioners reveal widely varying histories, in which they interpret their own work as “human rights” practice in differing ways. Practitioners who in the past thought of themselves differently, now identify as human rights activists. They are also becoming more professional, but concerned about professionalization. Their self-interpretations reflect these concerns and also respond to the necessities of career events. Through the conscious and unconscious aspects of their practice, practitioners exercise considerable agency in adapting human rights discourse to their own concerns while also being critical of it



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