Complicating the subject of human rights: subaltern uses of the language of rights

Stream: Panel 29 - Human Rights & Democracy: Human Rights and the Politics of Emancipation: Rules and Unruly Subjects
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 11.30 am – 1.00 pm
Speaker(s): Kiran Grewal

Many compelling critiques have been made of ‘the human rights project’ in recent times: pointing to its inability (or unwillingness) to respond to structural causes of injustice, its intertwinement with neo-liberal governance and economics and the hierarchical and exclusionary operation of the institutions and discourses themselves. While accepting these critiques, in this paper I propose a shift in focus away from the level of abstract political and legal theory towards an example of human rights ‘in practice’. My starting point will be a recent case involving a Sri Lankan sex worker (known as ‘Ratnapura Batti’) who sought to initiate a fundamental rights case in the Sri Lankan courts against a police officer who had publicly assaulted her. Through this case I explore the ways in which ‘Ratnapura Batti’s’ identification as a subject of rights both confirmed and challenged the authority of human rights law. While ultimately ambiguous, ‘Ratnapura Batti’s’ case shows that the practice of invoking human rights may in fact be a disruptive and destabilizing move by subalterns subjugated by both different types of oppression and hegemonic rights discourses. This, I will argue opens up interesting ways in which we might shift the ways we theorise human rights and the subject(s) they produce.