In this episode, Dr Sharath Srinivasan (University of Cambridge) joins the Declarations podcast to discuss the ideas underpinning human rights, how human rights can be used to justify violence, and in what sense human rights are ‘real’.

Dr Srinivasen kicks off the discussion by drawing out two important strands to contemporary human rights debates: on one side, the legal documents and protocols that lawyers, governments and corporations argue over; and on the other, a language of mobilisation that citizens use to make claims. This language of human rights is increasingly becoming the way in which a wide range of discussions are framed, relationships established, and actions legitimised. As seen with President George Bush’s framing of the Iraq invasion and the War on Terror, human rights language and concepts have come to justify many contradictory positions.

This raises important questions of control over who, and in what circumstances, this language of human rights can be deployed. “When human rights move towards ossifying around privileges for ‘us’, and not ‘them’, the language of human rights needs to be re-examined.”

Touching on the origins of human rights, it is of course necessary to question whether they are in fact a new mechanism for the imposition of Eurocentric ideals. Yet, the panel also discuss why this critical position needs to be balanced against the danger of delegitimising actors/ groups/ perspectives from the margin. For a long time, many movements and social groups have utilised languages similar to human rights – respect for life, equality, free association – in their struggles, without engagement with international NGOs and western governments. Dismissing these claims through claims  of neo-imperialism erases these grassroots histories.

Turning to the tension between political, civil and economic rights, Dr Srinivasan and the panel consider the idea of “human rights inflation”, and whether the field of human rights has been stretched too far, now including too many positions. The consequence of this expansion is the lowering of the value of human rights and its power as a concept. Is the right to meaningful work a human right?

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Guest bio:
Dr Srinivasen directs the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR). He is also David and Elaine Potter Lecturer in Governance and Human Rights in the Department of Politics and International Studies and a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. Dr Srinivasan holds a DPhil in Development Studies from Oxford University. At Oxford, he was a Chevening, ORS, Clarendon and ORISHA scholar and his research was supported by the Chr. Michelsen Institute (Norway). Dr Srinivasan’s current research follows two core themes: the politics and ethics of external intervention in civil conflicts, and the role of new information and communication technologies in political change.