Brooke Ackerly’s theories on human rights are rooted in real-world struggle
by Ann Marie Deer Owens
photo by John Russell
A growing number of students taking human rights courses around the globe have been turning the pages of Brooke Ackerly’s idea-filled Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference. The associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt bridges the worlds of political theory and actual human rights struggles in a book that summons the reader to meaningful action.
Ackerly recently returned from a University of Hong Kong symposium for human rights activists, lawyers and academics focused on “Alternative Visions of Human Rights.” Other countries where her book is in circulation among human rights practitioners as well as legal scholars and political theorists include South Africa, the Philippines, Canada and the United States.
“An important reason for writing this book was that I kept hearing during discussions – inside the classroom and at academic conferences – a deepening divide between activists who used human rights to justify a variety of causes and scholars who were skeptical and even critical of human rights as an instrument of imperialism,” Ackerly said. In practice, activists are making claims for property rights in South Africa and Uganda, for sexuality rights in South Asia and Latin America, and against liberal economic policies in India and Chile. Despite this contextual variety, they use human rights to legitimate their struggles.
Ackerly began her research process around 2000 with a goal, as she states in the book, “to confront well-reasoned theories of human rights with the reality of human experience, some of which might be invisible to the human rights theorist.”
The book is divided into three parts. During the first section, she presents the philosophical underpinnings of an immanent (meaning within the community of struggle) theory of universal human rights. The middle portion of the book describes her method of conducting research, which emphasizes learning from those who are struggling themselves with human rights issues.
“When you are dealing with questions of justice, I think that you should talk with people who are facing these problems as you try to figure out what justice requires,” she said. Ackerly, who also has a strong research-based interest in feminist and gender studies, did field work with many women’s organizations in order to develop an understanding of practices from the ground up.
W. James Booth, a professor of political science and philosophy and a colleague of Ackerly’s, emphasized the uniqueness of her research.
“Most of the time, political theorists are writing either a history of ideas or an analysis of concepts,” he said. “Brooke’s work – even though it has a clear theoretical core – is strongly rooted in the real world. That’s a huge contribution to the study of politics at Vanderbilt.”
Responding to even those human rights violations that an individual or community cannot see is an important theme of Ackerly’s research. Examples of human rights violations that are often invisible include trafficking for sex work, slavery as domestic servants, domestic violence and bonded sweatshop work. She said that other rights violations are invisible “because their cultural context treats the practices that sustain them as socially appropriate and culturally important or as social manifestations of men’s and women’s natures.”
One of the key chapters of Ackerly’s book is titled “Feminist Curb Cutting: A Methodology for Exposing Silences and Revealing Differences for the Immanent Study of Universal Human Rights.” She writes, “Women’s experiences and theoretical insights are (only) the starting point of our inquiry. … By drawing on women’s experiences, particularly on those of women who are multiply situated, feminist theorists and activists have drawn our attention to the range of shortcomings of human rights theory and human rights regimes in practice.”
Ackerly uses the term “curb-cut” as a metaphor for her belief that while all individuals share certain rights, we must take into consideration the very different situations and needs of those struggling for human rights. “Curb-cut” literally refers to the cuts in sidewalks that allow people in wheelchairs to travel down them more easily. Ackerly believes that a “one size fits all” mentality with human rights does not pay enough attention to the differences among and within various struggles. Therefore, the best way to develop theories about global justice is to discover both what people have in common in terms of their struggles, and what needs to be conceptualized differently, she said.
A Rwandan woman named Marie who asked Ackerly for assistance during the middle of her research had a profound impact on the shaping of Ackerly’s conclusions. Marie was struggling to keep her six children safe following a string of terrible events, including the death of her husband by paramilitaries in post-genocide violence. Marie’s own serious health problems and limited financial resources contributed to her challenges. Ackerly notes that as she was writing her book, Marie and her children moved from Rwanda to Uganda. They eventually were approved for refugee status and resettled in Australia.
“While I was writing an academic book about human rights, I went from compassionate friend, to unbelieving bystander, to useless confidante and to her only hope. The question, ‘What should I do?’ was often on my mind,” Ackerly said.
Part three of the book lays out Ackerly’s theory on human rights and the implications of that theory for those same activists who informed her project. It is Ackerly’s deep interest in and concern for people’s daily struggles over human rights that distinguishes her work from so many other political theorists. She writes that we should make “stronger circles,” meaning listening to and engaging with human rights activists to learn from their experiences. This will help academics to develop and refine political theory so that it is aligned more closely with the political struggles of the activists. She said that scholars who have read her work are not only political theorists, but also experts in international relations, law, gender studies and others outside of the political science discipline.
“It’s opened more lines of inquiry from graduate students at Vanderbilt and elsewhere about how to conduct their research,” she said.
Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference is the second book single-authored by Ackerly and published by Cambridge University Press. Booth notes that Cambridge is ranked the No. 1 scholarly press by the American Political Science Association.
“This is tremendous independent validation of the quality of her work and puts her in the very top echelon of scholarship in any ranking,” he said.