Springe direkt zu Inhalt

De-Centering Human Rights: Liberalism, Human Rights, and the Global South

Research focus:
Sep 01, 2022 — Aug 31, 2025

Project Description

The project examines how representatives of the Global South have engaged with liberal ideas in debates over human rights, both historically and in contemporary institutional settings. Instead of narrowing them down to their liberal enunciation, this approach treats human rights as a conflictual terrain where multiple normative scripts (including liberal ones) intersect and potentially clash with one other. In so doing, it aims to unveil the agency of actors from the Global South in shaping human rights as a central component of the current international order.

The project focuses on several areas of global governance in which the boundaries of human rights norms have come under intense scrutiny. In the context of policy fields such as trade and global health, for instance, actors of the global South have challenged the compatibility between human rights and economic (neo)liberalism, as well as between human rights and the international regime of intellectual property protection.

Research Questions

The project articulates in two parts. Part 1 adopts a historical approach to highlight the multiple trajectories of international human rights through time. This phase addresses the following questions: How have actors from the global South shaped current human rights institutions? To what extent was human rights activism by state and non-state actors in and of the global South informed by liberal values? Part 2 of the project focuses on contemporary global governance. It investigates the ways in which state and non-state actors representing the global South have used – and continue to use – human rights to contest the practices of (allegedly) liberal actors.

Research Approach

The project is intended as a platform enabling an interdisciplinary conversation among leading scholars on its subject matter. It especially seeks to encourage the use of innovative empirical methodologies to study the history and contestations of liberal thought in human rights politics. The project’s main milestones will be two workshops to be held in 2023 and 2024 respectively, each leading to a joint publication.

Relation to the Liberal Script

Human rights are a central component of the liberal script, often leading to their equation with liberalism. This nexus is predominantly attributed to the influence of Western/Northern liberal democracies on the making of international human rights. Taking issue with the simplistic nature of this narrative, the project aims to expose how representatives of the global South have also acted as authors, owners, interpreters, and contesters of both liberal ideas and the human rights discourse.