What do human rights do? Towards critical geographies of human rights: Session 1

Type: Paper
Theme: Geographies of Human Rights: The Right to Benefit from Scientific Progress
Sponsor Groups: Ethics, Justice, and Human Rights Specialty Group, Political Geography Specialty Group, Socialist and Critical Geography Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 12:40 PM / 2:20 PM (Eastern Standard Time)
Room: Forum Room, Omni, West
Organizers: Joel Correia, Nicole Laliberte, Jean Carmalt
Chairs: Joel Correia


Critical human geography has a longstanding concern for social and environmental justice, inequality, and the rights of both human and non-human actors. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights have become a global discourse hegemonic in their circulation and practice (Speed and Solano 2008), drawing academics, activists, practitioners, and affected peoples into new relations (Keck and Sikkink 1998) with variegated spatial, temporal, and socio-political effects (Goodale 2009; Boyle 2017). Human rights open avenues of hope and political possibility for oppressed peoples (Cardenas 2011), (re)shape geopolitics and debates about state sovereignty (Kelly 2018), create liminal geographies and states of exception for the stateless (Agamben 1995; Pratt 2005), and expose limits of decolonization (Asad 2000; Spivak 2004; Cusicanqui 2010). Indeed, human rights are relations that are as much social and political as they are spatial.

Recent scholarship suggests that critical analysis of human rights law, discourse, rhetoric, and practice can provide new insights to conversations in geography involving issues of inequality and the construction of (in)justice and thus call for critical geographers to explicitly engage the practice, study, and theorization of human rights (Laliberté 2015; Carmalt 2017). We therefore seek theoretically rigorous, empirically grounded papers that advance critical geographies of human rights through attention to spatialities of power, scalar relations, political contestation, and/or hope. We invite papers that engage with human rights from a variety of critical theoretical and methodological approaches that address one or more of the questions listed below.
The questions serve as a framework for engagement but do not delimit the range of topics that prospective papers can address.

--Following Talal Asad’s (2000) poignant critique, we ask: “What do human rights do?”
--Why should we strive for a critical geography of human rights?
--How are human rights geographically constituted and expressed?
--How do critical geographies of human rights reconcile with the gendered, racialized, colonial, and classist power relations of putting universal human rights into practice?
--What methodological approaches can critical human geography offer to the study of human rights practice?
--Universal human rights and cultural relativism have long been in a tense relation. What do critical human geography approaches bring to these debates and change them?


Agamben, G. 1995. Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Heller-Roazen, D. trans. Sanford: Stanford University Press.

Asad, T. 2000. What do human rights do? Ab anthropological enquiry. Theory & Event 4(4): muse.jhu.edu/article/32601.

Boyle, M. 2017. Human rights. In Richardson, D., Castree, N., Goodchild, M.F., Kobayashi, a., Liu, W., and Martson, R.A. eds. The international encyclopedia of human geography. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cardenas, S. 2011. Human rights in Latin America: A politics of terror and hope. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Carmalt, J. 2017. For critical geographies of human rights. Progress in Human Geography https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0309132517723720.

Cusicanqui, S.R. 2010. The notion of “rights” and the paradoxes of postcolonial modernity: Indigenous peoples and women in Bolivia. Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 18(2): 29-54.

Goodale, M. 2009. Ethical theory as social practice. American Anthropologist 108(1): 25-37.

Keck, M.E. and Sikkink, K. 1998. Activists beyond borders: Advocacy networks in international politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kelly, P.W. Sovereign emergencies: Latin America and the making of global human rights politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laliberté, N. 2015. Geographies of human rights: Mapping responsibility. Geography Compass 9(2): 57-67.

Pratt, G. 2005. Abandoned women and spaces of the exception. Antipode 37(5): 1053-1078.

Speed, S. and Solando, XL. 2008. Global discourses on the local terrain: Human rights in Chiapas. In Pitarch, P., Speed, S., and Solano, X.L. eds. Human rights in the Maya region: Global politics, cultural contentions and moral engagements. pp.207-232. Durham: Duke University Press.

Spivak, G.C. 2004. Righting wrongs. The South Atlantic Quarterly 103(2/3): 523-581.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Leila Harris*, University of British Columbia, Critical Perspectives on the Human Right to Water: Progressive realization, ongoing inequities, and everyday engagements in South Africa and Ghana 20 12:40 PM
Presenter Morten Andersen*, Danish Institute Against Torture, Geographies of Human Rights Practices 20 1:00 PM
Presenter Catherine Corson*, Mount Holyoke College, From Paper to Practice? A Rights-Based Conservation Approach 20 1:20 PM
Presenter Nicole Laliberte*, University of Toronto - Mississauga, Teaching Critical Human Rights: Navigating Geographies of Difference 20 1:40 PM

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