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Global Dialogues Series: Conceptualizing Human Rights

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Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948, the concept of human rights has become a global and far-reaching framework that strives to affirm any and all individuals’ basic rights and fundamental freedoms. However, structures of inequality linger within human rights language and continue to exacerbate the injustices we see in the world today: when the figure of the human is an exclusive one, the work of human rights can consequently also be fraught, exclusionary, and inequitable. Thus, with focus on how global human rights have impacted local mobilizations of rights politics and cultures in countries around the world, how can these global-local interfaces shift the epistemic center of human rights work and human rights scholarship? Given that paradoxes are definitive elements of critical human rights scholarship, how might we progress through critique toward reconceptualizing our understanding of the material, affective, and active relationship between human rights and cultures, such that we may be able to unsettle sedimented inequalities within human rights language and reimagine human rights work as truly transnational forces of change in both theory and praxis?

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Sumi Madhok is Professor of Political Theory and Gender Studies at the Department of Gender Studies, LSE. Quite unusually, she is a feminist political theorist with an ethnographic sensibility. Her work combines theoretical, conceptual and philosophical investigations with detailed ethnographies of the lived experiences, the processes of political subjectivation, and of contemporary subaltern political struggles for rights and justice, specifically, in South Asia. Professor Madhok’s scholarship goes beyond producing critiques of Eurocentrism and develops new concepts, theoretical frameworks and methodologies, which contribute to setting a new direction for the social sciences focused on epistemic interventions from the Global South. Sumi Madhok is the author of Rethinking Agency: Developmentalism, Gender and Rights (2013); the co-editor of Gender, Agency and Coercion (2013); and of the Sage Handbook of Feminist Theory (2014). Her latest book is titled Vernacular Rights Cultures: The Politics of Origins, Human Rights and Gendered Struggles for Justice (Cambridge University Press 2021).

Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and Professor of History at Yale University. He received a doctorate in modern European history from the University of California-Berkeley in 2000 and a law degree from Harvard University in 2001. He came to Yale from Harvard University, where he was Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law and Professor of History. Before this, he spent thirteen years in the Columbia University history department, where he was most recently James Bryce Professor of European Legal History. His areas of interest in legal scholarship include international law, human rights, the law of war, and legal thought, in both historical and current perspective. In intellectual history, he has worked on a diverse range of subjects, especially twentieth-century European moral and political theory. He has written several books in his fields of European intellectual history and human rights history, including The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010), and edited or coedited a number of others. His most recent books are Christian Human Rights (2015, based on Mellon Distinguished Lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2014) and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (2018). He is currently working on a new book on the origins and significance of humane war for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Over the years he has written in venues such as Boston Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dissent, The Nation, The New Republic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Arzoo Osanloo is a professor in the Department of Law, Societies, and Justice and the Director of the Middle East Center at the University of Washington. She is a legal anthropologist and previously worked as an immigration and asylum attorney. She is the author of Forgiveness Work: Mercy, Law, and Victims’ Rights in Iran (Princeton University Press, 2020), which won the Herbert Jacob Book Prize for new, outstanding work in law and society scholarship. Forgiveness Work examines Iran’s criminal justice system through its emphasis on victims’ rights, forgiveness, and mercy. She is also the author of The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran (Princeton University Press, 2009), which analyzes the politicization of women’s “rights talk” there. In addition to her monographs, she has published widely in peer-reviewed journals and collected volumes in her fields. She is currently working on a new project that explores the impact of sanctions on Iranians. She is co-PI on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar (2019-22), Humanitarianisms:Migrations and Care through the Global South. 


Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French; Professor of History and Professor of Political Science (by courtesy); and Faculty Director, Stanford Introductory Studies.