80 Fordham L. Rev. Res Gestae 1 (2011-2012)

handle is hein.journals/resgest2 and id is 1 raw text is: A CONVERSATION WITHOUT END: HUMAN
Colin Harvey *
This essay is an extended reflection on the present condition of human
rights law. Its origins rest in a class I taught at Fordham Law School in
April 2011, and the structure of the essay follows the direction travelled in
that class. The title also derives from a book series I edit with Hart
Publishing in Oxford. The class and the book series have prompted me to
consider what it might mean to think about rights in perspective. Res
Gestae offers a welcome opportunity to think out loud about the subject.
Human rights law holds out the prospect of a transformed world, with a
language and practice that promises much. It is a subject that cannot avoid
reimagining political, legal, and social relations at the local and global
levels. The law of human rights is woven through with aspiration and hope.
Even in legal study, where so much time is spent exploring the standards
and their interpretation, human rights discourse comes magnificently
cloaked in the idealism of popular struggles through history, continues to
pose the question of fulfillment, and encourages expectations of radical
Human rights law presents particular challenges for scholarship, and it is
one aim of this essay to indicate what they might be. Rather than recite the
established legal standards, the essay is intended to be read in the spirit of a
tentative intervention and thus stimulate further discussion.  The
underpinning assumption is, however, that human rights law is about more
than the steady accumulation of legal doctrine. The critical intent of human
rights law can be lost within the discourse of law, where it becomes easy for
established ideas to absorb and neutralize new thought and practice. The
concern expressed in this essay is how a discourse which holds out the
vision of human emancipation can be so readily deployed for other ends, or
simply crushed under the dead weight of established orthodoxies. How do
we see human rights law in perspective and retain the enthusiasm, energy,
and practical engagement that flow from popular struggles for rights over
This essay will start with thoughts on history, theory, and context. It will
then proceed to look at the selected themes of refugees, socioeconomic
* Professor of Human Rights Law and Dean of the Law School, Queen's University Belfast.
Professor Harvey served as a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commissioner from 2005-


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