Human rights: contesting the displacement thesis

  • Paul O'Connell SOAS, University of London
Keywords: human rights, displacement thesis, critique, struggle, emancipatory politics


From within the camp of broadly left-wing or progressive critiques of human rights, one of the key objections that has emerged is what will be referred to here as ‘the displacement thesis’. In sum, this critique maintains that reliance on the language of human rights by movements for radical social change is problematic, because it tends to crowd out (or displace) other, potentially emancipatory, languages, and as a consequence distract attention from broader, structural causes of injustice and oppression. It is argued here that, while this argument is intuitively appealing, it falls short for a variety of reasons. There are, to be sure, many problems with human rights, but the mobilisation of rights language can nonetheless make an important contribution to movements for radical social change, without displacing or precluding the mobilisation of other emancipatory languages, and the challenging of deeper, structural causes of injustice.