Accepted paper:

Tortured ethics: doubt and commitment in the UN human rights system

Authors:

Tobias Kelly (University of Edinburgh)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines the combination of scepticism and enthusiasm found in so much engagement with the UN human rights system. In doing so it applies some of the central insights developed by Franz von Benda Beckmann about legal pluralism, to international human rights bureaucracies.

Paper long abstract:

This paper examines the combination of scepticism and enthusiasm found in so much engagement with the UN human rights system. In doing so it applies some of the central insights developed by Franz von Benda Beckmann about legal pluralism, to international human rights bureaucracies. Focusing on the UN Committee Against Torture, it argues that the experience of the plural legal and normative orders that mark human rights practices, means that doubt is the dominant experience for many practitioners. On the one hand, human rights bureaucracies are often seen to be marked out by their rigid certainties. On the other hand, human rights lawyers are faced with an array of often contradictory human rights standards and an uncertainty over the long term impact of their work. In this context, doubt is a sense of being in two minds, that is neither entirely scepticism or enthusiasm, but an unstable and productive combination of the two. The knowledge produced by the UN human rights system is not a self-referential or self-enclosed process, but rather is marked gaps, hesitations and uncertainties. In this process there is a constant movement between legal and ethical concerns, between a focus on means and ends. Such tensions are not simply an issue of jurisprudential theory, but rather are an issue of practical concern for many of the people involved in the Committee. This irresolution produces both despair and hope, as alternative avenues and possibilities are constantly opened up and closed down.

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