Between agency and structure: The challenges of a structural approach to preventing human rights violations

Stream: Panel 74 - Human Rights & Democracy: From Theories of Rights to Practices of Justice: The Challenge of Engaged Scholarship in the Field of Rights 
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 11.00 am – 12.30 pm


A significant body of political and sociological research supports the theory that violence committed within institutional settings is best understood in situational, not dispositional terms. This situational analysis can be well applied to torture, particularly where it is systemic and normalised within the day-to-day practice of security sector organisations. At the same time, a significant portion of the strategies developed and deployed to prevent torture focus on individual agents, either through the enactment of laws criminalising torture, or through human rights training. Legal sanctions can certainly be understood as a form of ethical education (in Aristotelian terms) and thus a means for altering the normative environment and not only a way of changing the incentive structures within which agents make decisions. Nevertheless, both of these approaches leave unaddressed the vast majority of situational factors that condition the use of torture. Other approaches, such as non-accusatory monitoring do seek to address such factors (conditions of detention for example), but are fairly undeveloped with respect to bringing about institutional change, relying mainly on persuasion and normative pressure. Observing this state of affairs, many critics now see human rights approaches as insufficiently structural in their analysis and strategy. Such theoretical critiques are, however light on practical recommendations for how to bring about situational or structural change, even as they recognise the limits of law as an effective steering mechanism. This paper considers this gap between structural critique and the feasibility of structural strategies and possible directions for future practice based research.


Danielle Celermajer (Presenter), University of Sydney
Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. She recently directed an EU-funded project addressing the root causes of torture and developing innovative strategies to prevent torture in police and military settings in the Asia Pacific. Her publications include Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge, 2009), Power, Judgment and Political Evil: Hannah Arendt’s Promise (Ashgate, 2010)) and (with Richard Sherwin) The Cultural History of Law in the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury 2017). She is currently completing a book on translating structural analyses of human rights violations into real world interventions.