Friday, March 21, 2014

On South Africa's Human Rights Day: Human Rights and Social Movements

South Africa's Human Rights Day and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination -- March 21, commemorating the Sharpesville Massacre -- present an occasion to reflect on the relationship of human rights to social movements in the U.S.  The role of social movements in U.S. constitutional change and rights expansion has attracted considerable attention from prominent legal scholars such as William Eskridge and Reva Siegel.  The role of social movements in promoting and expanding human rights in the U.S. has garnered attention of scholars from a range of fields, including anthropology, sociology, history and, somewhat more recently, law.  It is commonly acknowledged that human rights norms are effective organizing tools, and much of the social science literature has focused on that aspect of human rights.  However, there is certainly room for legal scholars, in particular, to focus greater attention on how that organizing capacity translates into law and policy changes.

Important multidiciplinary works examining social movements and human rights in the U.S. include Human Rights in the United States: Beyond Exceptionalism, edited by Shareen Hertel and Kathryn Libal (2011), which addresses topics ranging from post-disaster organizing to welfare rights to domestic violence.  The recent Human Rights in Our Own Backyard: Injustice and Resistance (2013), edited by William Armaline et al., addresses human rights and social movements from the perspective of  sociology.   An earlier work, Bringing Human Rights Home (2007), edited by Cynthia Soohoo, Cathy Albisa and this blog author (2007) collects both first-hand and academic accounts of social movements and human rights in the U.S.  Some of the campaigns described there, such as the campaign of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for fair wages, are ongoing; the website of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative,, provides more recent accounts of these efforts.  In another important study, legal anthropologists Mihaela Serban, Sally Merry, Peggy Levitt and Diana Yoon examined a local human rights initiative in Law from Below: Women's Human Rights and Social Movements in New York City, 44 Law & Society 101 (2010). 

In the legal literature, the most prominent recent contributions have focused on social movements in the origins of human rights norms, with several scholars debating the provenance of human rights.  Professor Jenny Martinez, in her book The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law (2013), looks to the abolition movement as a source of international law in the service of rights.  Samuel Moyn, in contrast, argues in The Last Utopia (2010) that the international human rights movement first emerged in the 1970s.  Philip Alston, in Does the Past Matter? On the Origins of Human Rights, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 2043 (2013), argues that there are many sources of human rights and that no linear examination can successfully identify the components and origins of these ideas.

While this level of attention from serious scholars is certainly welcome, the Alston- Martinez-Moyn debate does not engage with the question of how social movements in the U.S. do and can use human rights for social change -- an inquiry that Human Rights Day invites.  Readers, have I missed a good resource on social movements and human rights?  Please help by commenting below and sharing recommendations of studies and legal literature on this issue!

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Hi Martha, great post!
Readers may be interested in the “Health Care is a Human Right Campaign” launched by the Vermont Workers’ Center in 2008.
The Campaign used a human rights framework in its organizing and advocacy efforts and was able to successfully pressure the Vermont Legislature to adopt legislation that paves the way to the creation of a universal, single-payer health care system Vermont.
The human rights principles at the heart of the campaign are now enshrined in Vermont law and the Workers’ Center has begun to address other pressing human rights issues facing Vermont including immigration and a “People’s Budget.”
This article by my colleague, Mariah McGill, is an excellent introduction to the Vermont movement:

Posted by: Kevin Murray | Mar 24, 2014 1:24:50 PM

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