Can mainstreaming challenge the liberal legacy in human rights?

Human rights as understood in global politics are a product of liberal political philosophy and thought[1]. They come with a philosophical pedigree that extends back to the enlightenment and further[2]. This pedigree however means they were constructed by a particular class of humans, namely Caucasian European men of reasonable wealth and education, and that people of different cultures, sexes and (dis)abilities were not part of this formational period. Thus human rights can be criticised for this legacy as privileging the experience of this class of humans over others, that is they protect humans from the types of violations that would be experienced by Caucasian men and ignore potential violations they are not exposed to because of their privileged position in society[3].

In this essay I will attempt to show how human rights are a malleable tool which can challenge this liberal legacy through the use of concerted efforts to ‘mainstream’ the experiences of other identities by handing over the application of rights to minorities in specific contexts.

I will do this by first exploring the history and legacy of liberalism in the current human rights regime and show how the proliferation of specific rights treaties display how rights change and evolve over time.I will explore the way in which gender has been mainstreamed within the human rights regime and the critique of feminist theories regarding its application. Taking these criticisms into account I will attempt to refine the ‘mainstreaming’ process and apply it to another area, disability, to show how mainstreaming disability in a specific case study can give voice to marginalised voices and provide visibility to otherwise invisible experiences.

Standpoint and Definitions

I will approach this question using Standpoint Feminist theory to analyse the issues related to the liberal legacy of human rights. Standpoint Feminism begins with the ontology of the state as being a “set of patriarchal practices that support yet silence the structural disadvantages that women face”[4]. Crucial to this interpretation is the historical separation of the public and private sphere, which locates women within the latter and men in the former[5]. This separation of the public/private has problematic implications for women and people with disabilities as many rights violations occur explicitly in the private sphere[6]. I will shift the focus of study from abstract states to focus on how real people are impacted by structures, paying close attention to silences that arise from these structures and who benefits/is handicapped by these silences.

In line with the principles of the theory I must situate myself as the author and explain the limitations of my experience in researching and writing about the issues presented[7]. As an able bodied heterosexual male, I cannot speak with authority on the experience of the women or people with disabilities featured within this paper. My position of privilege means I am personally blind to the types of issues they may experience in day-to-day life and thus it serves as a limitation to the discussion. Methodologically to counteract this limitation I will privilege the information provided by subjects who have documented their own experiences.

For purposes of the present paper, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ will be understood in accordance with ‘second wave’ feminist theory, the definition used by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights[8]. ‘Sex’ will refer to the biological anatomy of individuals and ‘gender’ will refer to the social constructions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which depending on context will create the expectations by which individuals are judged by conformity to their gender in relation to their sex. Gender thus encompasses the roles, attitudes and values by which communities and individuals ascribe what is appropriate for each sex in the public and private domains[9].

Human rights will be understood through a legal positivist lens, where rights exist and are protected because of the laws and institutions humans have established and maintained[10]. When referring to rights I will exclusively mean those which exist in law at international/state level and in treaties and not in respect of what ought to be a right under certain philosophical understandings. Thus rights do not exist by virtue of their moral demands but by the actual existence of international law.

Disability will be understood under the ‘social model of disability’. Disability is a social construct and is the result of the interaction of people with impairments within an environment with physical, attitudinal, communicative and social barriers[11]. Thus people are disabled not by their impairment but by the environment within which they are placed. This is the definition used by the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)[12].

The Liberal Legacy in Human Rights and Attempts to Evolve

Liberal philosophy was the guiding force to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man[13] and the product of thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham[14]. Core to liberal philosophy is an overriding concern for individual liberty[15]. Liberals are committed to the belief of a “protected area of individual freedom” with an “autonomous sphere of free inquiry”[16]. This form of negative liberty (freedom created through restrictions on other actors) that is created by a ‘protected area of individual freedom’ in combination with an ‘autonomous sphere of free inquiry’ is the foundation to the public/private split of social human life that liberals value. Liberals thus seek to limit arbitrary power which interferes with this freedom[17]. Liberals hold these normative claims because of a belief that they are reached through rational thought. The values of individual liberty are rationally derived and thus ‘objective’ or ‘true’ in nature, “for Liberals, the notion of a search for truth is real; it has no ironic, postmodernist overtones.”[18]

While it is possible to argue for the influences of religious[19] and Marxist thought[20] in the modern human rights regime, most recognisable in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its covenants are the liberal elements of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man[21]. Indeed Rene Cassin, a principal drafter of the UDHR, drew direct inspiration from the French Revolution, naming the ‘four pillars’ of the declaration after the French revolutionary battle-cry “dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood”[22] thus solidifying liberal values in the foundational document of the international human rights regime.

Problems with this legacy are not difficult to identify. To acknowledge the ‘low hanging fruit’ first, inspiration from the French Revolution’s influence on a discursive level are clearly evident. The “Declaration on the Rights of Man” and battle-cry “dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood” are already exclusionary in terms of gender. Thus while the UDHR in Article 2 states:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.[23]

Attempting to imbue a strong universalist rhetoric, specifically acknowledging that sex is no barrier to claiming these rights, Article 1 states:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.[24]

Note the inclusion of brotherhood, a gendered term of inclusion, which ironically excludes those not of the male gender. Further the stipulation that human beings are endowed with reason ever so indirectly points to the rational derivation of these rights as a muted justification for their existence.

Appeals to reason for rights’ objective universality is a problematic notion. While the UDHR engages in universalist rhetoric, attempting to be as inclusive as was politically possible in 1947, rights can be understood as “normatively universal but far from universally shared by all human beings”[25]. That is to say, due to the sixty odd years of development and implementation of human rights in the international arena, they have come to be ‘globally accepted’ at the international level and thus have normative power in at least some sense to hold states accountable, but they are not necessarily shared at the level of belief by individual states or even individuals. Thus while presenting as self evident, as if a product of sheer common sense, the truth is that taking human rights rhetoric on face value ignores the political history of their construction.

The ‘universalism’ of human rights as espoused by the documents from the enlightenment was “part of a political project, deeply bound up with the construction of the state through revolution if necessary”[26]. The rights constructed from this period thus directly benefitted the able bodied white men who created them, protecting humans from the violations most familiar to them. This is not to say that persons who are not able bodied, white or male cannot also be protected by these rights and this legacy in the current regime. Rather, the problem is that accepting that these are rationally derived as being their source of legitimacy whilst not taking into account the contextual bias of their construction facilitates the structure which marginalises voices who claim to not be protected by these rights.

Moreover, appeals to reason necessarily precluded women, who were in the twentieth century “not seen to have the same faculty for rationality as men”[27] and thus these notions that come with the value of reason, being ‘logical’ and ‘objective’, are actually appeals to the male voice[28] in the construction of these “universal” truths. Points within the UDHR such as Article 12 which specifically makes a negative duty claim that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy”[29] are products of this liberal legacy. If one were not aware of their construction and the absence of women or persons with disabilities in its construction, then the division of public/private spheres, which this right specifically protects, ignores the plight of women who are most vulnerable to the abuses of men in the privacy of their own marriages and homes; their voices could thus be silenced in the current human rights regime. To qualify, this is not to say that the right to privacy is anti-women or of no use to women or persons with disabilities, merely that in the absence of a critical reading of rights, the problems posed by this right and the tensions it has with others would be invisible.

Throughout all of this, despite its foundational bias, human rights theorists and law makers have been deeply aware of these limitations. The UDHR’s attempt to universalise these rights is an obvious step towards overcoming this legacy. Rights have accordingly proliferated, now totalling twelve bodies of international human rights treaties. These conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child(CRC), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women(CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are all attempts to extend the human rights regime to those traditionally excluded from their construction.

This evolution and proliferation can be taken as evidence that the human rights regime has the capacity to evolve to become more inclusive of marginalised voices. Importantly the proliferation of rights has run with the discourse that they are “indivisible, interrelated and interdependent”[30] meaning that ‘picking-and-choosing’ which rights a state may choose to endorse or not runs counter to their purpose. The principle of rights is that they exist as a network of claims which individuals are entitled to without restriction. The problem of course is that these rights treaties, created to address specific areas of issue remain in a largely abstract space. People often occupy multiple spaces of citizenship with intersecting claims of race, sex, gender, ability and sexuality. Rights treaties as they are currently formulated feature little to no intersection with each other.

Finally, while outlining the liberal legacy inherent in the current regime of human rights, it is important to note that it is not a monolith and carries within it unresolved tensions even within the liberal framework. Tensions between the universal applicability of individual rights and the possibly different values of group rights highlight problems even between the two international covenants. While outside the scope of this essay, the fact that disagreements within the liberal framework continue to evolve and remain unresolved is important to note.

Mainstreaming and the Feminist Challenge

The term “mainstreaming” was first used in the 1970s to describe a plan to integrate students with disabilities with those who do not have disabilities to be taught in conjunction[31]. In the international human rights regime the term “gender mainstreaming” came after the prevailing approach to including women’s issues in development (WID) was considered inadequate because

it identified women as a special interest group within the development sphere needing particular accommodation. WID strategies encouraged the integration of women into the existing structures of development, and did not question the biases built into these structures. [32]

Gender mainstreaming thus was conceptualised by the UN as a technique to firstly increase the “participation of women in the planning and decision making of all UN activities” and to “actively and visibly attempt to consider and analyse the effects of decisions on women and men”[33].

The successes of this approach are obvious and few while its shortcomings are many and obscure. The lexicon of gender mainstreaming is omnipresent throughout the UN, with the majority of UN bodies and agencies having formally endorsed it[34]. Its high visibility and salience contributes to the culture of mainstreaming the issue, that is, it becomes conventional and uncontroversial to see women and think of the impacts of policy on women. So effective has this tool become at spreading mimetically throughout policy creation that women’s issues appeared as Millennium Development Goal #3[35].

Well informed gendered concerns were not explicitly stated or acknowledged in previous conventions such as the CRC, where gender does not appear once[36], or the Convention Against Torture (CAT), where neither sex nor gender appear once[37] despite torture having highly gendered dimensions. Treaties like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1966, which mentions gender zero times and sex just once, carry with them explicitly western values with gendered protections that are diffuse and confusing as shown below. Article 10 of the ICESCR states: The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that:

  1. The widest possible protection and assistance should be accorded to the family, which is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, particularly for its establishment and while it is responsible for the care and education of dependent children. Marriage must be entered into with the free consent of the intending        spouses.
  2. Special protection should be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth. During such period working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits.[38]

While Article 10 (2) provides specific protections for mothers, providing economic claims to maternity leave, Article 10 (1) is an explicit endorsement of the nuclear family. It is possible to infer a heteronormative reading of this right because the ICESCR does not have an analogous article relating to paternity leave, nor does it seem to engage with the idea of homosexual parents and their families. This endorsement of the nuclear family with economic claims for mothers without an analogous right for fathers shows how a lack of ‘gender mainstreaming’ resulted in a right which supports the status quo, making no attempt to problematise or consider alternatives to traditional gender roles of men as breadwinners and women as dependent mothers, solidifying heteronormative constructions of marriage, facilitating the abuse of women at the hands of men.

In stark contrast, the first human rights treaty of the new millennium, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, featured the word gender seven times and sex twice[39].  The CRPD is a truly gender mainstreamed document, wherein it acknowledges that there are gendered dimensions to the types of exploitation, violence and abuse female persons with disabilities experience[40] as well as to their health needs[41] and representation[42]. It makes an explicit commitment to considering gender in its preamble[43].

Thus when comparing previous treaties to newer ones post mainstreaming, it is easy to feel comfort that women’s issues are being considered by the international human rights regime. Feminists are less convinced that gender mainstreaming has provided a panacea to women’s representation or rights[44] [45].

Issues arising are multiple and nuanced: Gender has become a substitute for women in the majority of applications[46], meaning it has failed to appropriately interrogate the problems posed by masculine privilege or aggression[47]. Gender has been used as a category of demography and not analysis[48] meaning that gender is further equated with sex, essentialising the lives of women and men[49]. These issues are interrelated problems and difficult to separate from each other but will be explored in further detail.

The problem with focusing almost exclusively on women and not gender as a social construct is that the scope of gender is reduced. Indeed ‘doing gender’ becomes conflated with ‘helping women’[50]. Talk of gender equality and attempting give women equal standing to men does little to actually question whether the structure which has produced the inequality they are attempting to modify is worth maintaining or even if assumptions on women and men are even true or just narratives/myths perpetuated by the society they are situated within. Discursively it polarises the categories of female/male and overemphasises differences between them as oppositional categories bringing with it essentialisations of either gender.

This issue is visible in post-war Rwanda. Gender narratives traditionally cast women as victims[51] and even more so when the intersecting dimension of age is included[52]. These characterisations of victimhood diminish the possibility of agency within conflict. Yet in Rwanda, Hutu women not only were perpetrators of the immediate violence of genocide, but they also participated in the indirect violence of ordering and supervising abductions, murders, rapes and torture of Tutsi people[53]. Rwandan women would gang rape young men in order to emasculate and dishonour them, further displaying the complicated way in which gender affected the Rwandan genocide[54]. Yet because of traditional narratives of women being helpless victims in the genocide and cultural beliefs about women (such as mothers cannot be killers[55]), in the aftermath of the genocide, female perpetrators were not held accountable for their crimes[56].

Instead post-war Rwanda’s efforts to include women focused on political representation[57]. While not discrediting the excellent work of ensuring high female participation in the legislative process of Rwanda, the example is evidence of my previous point. ‘Doing gender’ by attempting to equalise women and men within already existing structures, in this case political ones, does little to question the cultural narrative of women as impotent victims despite its lack of truth. The lack of accountability of female perpetrators could serve as a potential spoiler to peace in the future[58].

This problem is the inverse when masculinity is interrogated. Masculine aggression is seen to be essential to what it means to be a man, it is accepted uncritically and further attempts to understand the social processes that inform this aggression from case to case are rare.

The ‘Youth Bulge Thesis’ of realist scholars like Samuel Huntington and Robert Kaplan contends that “societies become war prone when the number of young people aged between fifteen and twenty-four reaches a critical level of twenty per cent of the entire country”[59]. Often it is young men who are held to be the specific spoilers of peace[60],  yet there is no evidence to suggest a pre-determined causal link between the large number of young men in a post conflict society and the probable reignition of conflict[61]. Stereotypical constructions of masculinity have informed the youth bulge thesis without sourcing empirical data to support its claims. Male aggression is important to understand as it can be a potential spoiler to peace and thus necessary to understand to ensure societies do not degenerate, leading to widespread denial of rights common to zones of conflict.

Male aggression is however as contextual and varied as the many masculinities all over the world. In the US it is commonly understood that conformity to masculine norms and gender roles are linked to aggression[62]. Aggression from men is suggested to be a ‘psychological salve’ to men’s experience of gender and the pressure to conform to a set of harsh prescriptive and proscriptive social norms[63]. This aggression however is fully mediated by agreeableness, a personality trait which indicates levels of prosocial, communal orientation[64].  This means that while there is a gendered component to men’s aggression stemming from the pressure to conform to gender performance as evidenced in men who display anti-social behaviour, it may be less common in men with better functioning sociability. In future ‘doing gender’ should look at men not as a category or as a class but at masculinity, a social construct which affects men, to properly understand masculine aggression.

Thus feminist scholars problematise gender mainstreaming less because of its intentions, but more because of its faulty application of gender as a category of analysis by UN bodies. What does this say about mainstreaming and its potential to challenge the legacy of liberal thought in human rights? In some ways it has attempted to highlight previously invisible issues, yet application of gender without critical analysis has instead resulted in further essentialising women as victims and men as inherently violent. This however is a problem with how gender has been applied not ‘mainstreaming’ per se. With a clearer understanding of this problem, mainstreaming could still work to challenge the liberal history of rights in other areas if applied with better theoretical parameters.

Disability and Post Conflict Societies

Mainstreaming disability would function under the same principles outlined by the UN for gender. It would seek to increase the participation of persons with disabilities in the planning and decision making of issues and to actively and visibly attempt to consider and analyse the effects of decisions on persons with disabilities, albeit these attempts to analyse effects would focus not on persons with disability as a class (like women and men) but disability as a social construct. Specifically that people with impairments are disabled by an environment with physical, attitudinal, communicative and social barriers. Disability is the barrier and not the person.

Using post war Northern Uganda as a case study I will outline how disability mainstreaming could be implemented to aid persons with disabilities to attain the rights they are entitled to by international customary law. Uganda has been in some form of international or internal conflict since 1971[65]. The Lord’s Resistance Army’s(LRA) Insurgency has lead to two decades of violent conflict between them and the Ugandan Government[66]. Both sides have used the body as a source of communication and control over the population, using rape, torture and humiliation to that end[67]. The LRA’s brutality allows it to use mutilation as a method of communication and control over the population.

Ears and lips are cut off as a signal to beware of informing on the LRA. Bicycle riders have their legs cut off because bicycles, a major mode of transportation, also bring communication.[68]

This inordinate use of force has resulted in widespread, long lasting impairments which, given the environment of Uganda, has resulted in disability. Impaired individuals in Uganda face not only physical barriers due to their environment resulting in a lack of mobility, but also dwindling social capital as a loss of ability hinders the ability of individuals to participate in communal agricultural practices leaving many to feel unwelcomed by their community[69].

Further, while conflict may not be immediately present and communities may consider themselves in a state of post-conflict or peace, bodies which have been “marked” by the war may be presented with the pain of their injuries in everyday life – be it going to the toilet, having sexual intercourse, being social and commuting – resulting in an inability to ‘move past’ the conflict[70]. This denial of a return to the ‘ordinary life’ prior to conflict serves as a potential spoiler to peace. Below are the stories of two individuals from the Ugandan conflict showing how having a disability now has affected their lives in Uganda.


Simon was an English teacher at a secondary school in Kitgum Town, near a camp for internally displaced persons(IDP). Prior to the accident Simon considered himself a strong, virile man. In 2007, when leaving school on his motorcycle, Simon heard gunfire and fearing it was an ambush by the LRA sped off. While there was a ceasefire agreement in place from 2006, fear of violence and hostility was especially strong among civilians[71]. While fleeing the perceived danger, Simon suffered an accident that left him paralysed from the waist down. He is now completely dependent upon his wife Sarah[72]. Simon constructs what happened to him through the use of gender binaries. Where previously he was strong and masculine, he is now a “cripple”, dependent on his wife.

Simon was known within his community for helping  with tasks such as digging ditches, this brought him a measure of social capital, giving him a say in communal affairs. His current inability to contribute to the community has resulted in a loss of social capital.

Sarah, has also faced disruption to her networks. Being Simon’s sole caretaker she has ceased her interaction within the community. Prior to the accident she used to contribute to communal nannying. She claims that she faces antagonism from her neighbours ‘advising’ her that Simon has now become a burden[73].

Reciprocity is a recurring theme between both Simon and Sarah’s plight post-conflict. Northern Uganda is home to largely rural and agrarian communities[74]. Due to economic factors, agrarian tools such as tractors and mills may not exist. Communities thus organise themselves, rotating between each others’ properties to help in crop production. After the harvest, communities sell the left over produce together so as to gain a higher profit from the market[75]. Simon’s inability to participate alienates him from this process.


Aketo was an energetic woman in her late 30s in 1996 when she lost her right leg and three fingers of her left hand in 1996 after stepping on a landmine. She was a married mother of three but was left by her husband after the event.

After I came back from the hospital, people in the community started telling him that your woman has become disabled and useless. You should find another wife. That’s when he started mistreating me … He told me that he can’t take care of me because of my disability so it will be better if we get a divorce and I go back home. He stopped taking care of me and I had no option but to leave.[76]

Women in Acholi society are expected to be able to produce children, care for them, cook, maintain a household and cultivate/weed fields. When they are not able to perform the tasks expected of them as women they lose a source of respect[77]. Economic self sufficiency is challenged when women who may primarily rely on the income of their partners lose this resource in their lives.


Mainstreaming the issues of disability rights in a context such as post-conflict Uganda could provide a way forward for individuals such as Aketo and Simon to move on from the conflict and live a better quality of life, without the constant reminder of the war through their disabilities. Mainstreaming would work jointly by ensuring that people with disabilities are present in the decision making process of transitional justice mechanisms such as truth and reconciliation commissions in reference to international standards/rights.

The process could figure in solutions to Simon’s problem by creating state sponsored communal agriculture standards which delegate specific tasks to people with disabilities. Accounting processes could be taught to those with physical disabilities in order to contribute to Uganda’s culture of reciprocal agriculture. In order to overcome problems of self sufficiency for women normally dependent on their husbands, women’s-only employment could be organised within culturally appropriate forms. Brewing alcohol is considered a feminine activity in Acholi society[78]; use of this cultural information would provide a way forward for women. If roles are delegated on a case by case basis with consideration for the ability of each woman, women taking part in this could find themselves no longer needing to rely on the partners who leave them for failing to meet the expectations of their gender. The focus of course is on ability rather than on the disability alone.

What this process of mainstreaming has done is allowed citizens at the local level access the often lofty notions of human rights which exist at a supranational level. Using a visual representation of space, the below diagram outlines the current process of applying international standards to local communities:

United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

States & Insurgency Groups
The Government of Uganda
The Lord’s Resistance Army

Civilian Population

What mainstreaming represents is an opportunity for the civilian population currently in the bottom level of the hierarchy to take principles from the top tier, the UN level, and apply them to the processes delivered by the second tier, the State. Without mainstreaming the issues of disabled persons in a post-conflict situation, their plight may be rendered invisible because of a lack of participation due to barriers to participation not considered.

Implications for the Liberal Legacy within Human Rights

Human rights as argued previously carries with it a legacy of privileging the problems faced by white western men, the class which created them, over the problems faced by individuals who occupy different spaces of citizenship and identity. While far from being a universal example, in the context of post-conflict Uganda, where disability is a frequent result of war, mainstreaming the issue of disability in transitional justice processes challenges the legacy of considering disability as predominantly a rarer occurrence, the barriers of which can be broken down by prostheses and other technological tools not available to the global south.

Human rights have attempted to evolve past their limitations by proliferating treaties which recognise the problems faced by specific communities, however the application of these rights has not evolved with it. Currently the lack of intersection between the majority of rights treaties has had the unfortunate consequence of reifying the problems faced by individuals who require protection. Without a concerted effort to include women in the CPRD for instance, the abstract individuals protected by the CPRD would not have been gendered. For rights to truly become a tool in the betterment of societies, we must increase their access from local levels and have a ‘bottom up’ trajectory of their use rather than a ‘top down’ application. The context of post conflict societies presents a specific area where states are often in the process of reconstruction and are in a better position politically to accommodate the voices of minorities. Thus this example from Uganda may not be relevant to all situations. However by mainstreaming issues, we facilitate the access of civilians to international standards, giving them voice at a state level to apply processes they themselves believe will benefit their situation. In this sense, by providing diverse communities the opportunity to direct the application of rights, the liberal legacy of human rights would be challenged by democratising their application.

A New Way Forward For Rights?

Rights have continued to proliferate since 1948. With a total of twelve treaties related to rights, the most common application of rights is through rhetoric at an international level, used as a justification for coercion, interventions and other political ends. If rights are truly to overcome their liberal legacy, then the application of them must be handed over in some form to the peoples that require them. Mainstreaming issues from diverse communities could provide this opportunity. The limitation of the analysis provided in this essay is the highly contextual nature of post-conflict societies, in which widescale reform is already being considered and underway. Views and solutions from one community could well prove wholly unsuitable to other situations, both politically and pragmatically. Regardless of this limitation, rights are macro level constructions, which micro level decision-makers could use as a reference to guide decisions that will serve their communities appropriately. The Liberal legacy of human rights is nuanced and unresolved yet pervasive in an ambiguous way. Rights have attempted to evolve by proliferating in an attempt to become more inclusive, albeit with a lack of intersection between the reified protections created, hindering their application. The women’s rights movement gave us gender mainstreaming which sought to increase the number of women in international institutions and to have gendered concerns considered through all UN processes. While applied in problematic ways, the process of mainstreaming gives voice to those communities traditionally excluded from the construction of rights. Thus if refined, while rights may already be constructed with an inherent liberal legacy, their application can be directed by local communities at a state level, challenging in some way the liberal legacy in human rights.


[1] Ishay, M; (2004). What are human rights? Six historical controversies, Journal of Human Rights, 3(3), 359

[2] Ibid., 361

[3] Langlois, A J; (2009). Normative and Theoretical Foundations of Human Rights, In Goodhart, Michael: Human Rights: Politics and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press), 11

[4] Hansen, L; (2010). Ontologies, Epistemologies, Methodologies, in Shepherd, L, J, Gender Matters in Global Politics: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations, Routledge, 21

[5] Ibid.

[6] Conejo, M, A; (2011). Disabled women and transnational feminisms: shifting boundaries and frontiers, Disability & Society, 26(5), Routledge, 598

[7] Jacoby, T; (2006). From the Trenches: Dilemmas of Feminist Methodologies for International Relations, In Ackerly, B,A; Stern, M; True, J; Feminist Methodologies for International Relations, Cambridge University Press, 162

[8] Charlesworth, H; (2005). Not Waving but Drowning: Gender Mainstreaming and Human Rights in the United Nations, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 18, 14

[9] Ibid.

[10] Langlois, 17

[11] People with Disability, “The Social Model of Disability (accessed 23/09/2015)

[12] United Nations, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 30 March 2007, Article 1

[13] Langlois, 12

[14] Smith, M J; (1992). Liberalism and International Reform, In Terry Nardin & David Mapel (eds.) Tradition of International Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 207

[15] Dunne, T; Hanson, M; (2009). Human Rights in International Relations, In Michael Goodhart,  Human Rights: Politics and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 63

[16] Smith, 208

[17] Ibid., 201

[18] Ibid., 208

[19] Ishay, 362

[20] Ibid.,363

[21] Langlois, 17

[22] Ishay, 359

[23] United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, Article 2

[24] Ibid., Article 1

[25] Langlois, 17, italics in the original

[26] Moyn, S A; Elizabeth, A M; (2010). Humanity in Human Rights, in Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Cambridge, MA, USA, Harvard University Press, 20

[27] Langlois, 21

[28] Hansen, 22

[29] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12 (emphasis added)

[30] United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, What Are Human Rights?, United Nations, (accessed 29/09/15)

[31] Charlesworth, 2

[32] ibid.

[33] Ibid., 3

[34] Ibid., 5

[35] Millennium Project, Millennium Development Goals, United Nations Secretary General & Development Group, (accessed 27/09/2015)

[36] United Nations, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2 September 1990

[37] United Nations, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 10 December 1984

[38] United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966

[39] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

[40] Ibid., Article 16

[41] Ibid., Article 25

[42] Ibid., Article 34

[43] Ibid., Preamble S

[44] Charlesworth, 2

[45] Cornwall, A; (2007). Revisiting the ‘Gender Agenda’, IDS Bulletin, 38(2), Institute of Development Studies, 69

[46] Ibid., 73

[47] Ibid., 74

[48] Ibid., 75

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 74

[51] Brown, A, E; (2013). Female Perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide, International Feminist Journal or Politics, 16(3), Routledge, 448

[52] Stevens, A, J; (2014). The invisible soldiers: understanding how the experiences of girl child soldiers impacts upon their health and rehabilitation needs, Arch Dis Child, 99, 458

[53] Ibid., 459

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 449

[56] Ibid., 462

[57] Herbert, L, A; (2015). “Women Run the Show”?: Gender Violence Reform and the “Stretching” of Human Rights in Rwanda, Journal of Human Rights, 14(1), Routledge, 23

[58] Stevens, 462

[59] Huntington, S, P; (1996). The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, New York, 261

[60] Lee-Koo, K. (2015). Children and Peacebuilding: Propagating Peace, in Huynh, D’Costa, Lee-Koo: Children and Global Conflict, Cambridge University Press, 202

[61] Ibid., 205

[62] Berke, S, D; Wilson, L; Mousilo, E; Speir, Z; Zeichner, A; (2015). Isolating the Gendered Component of Men’s Physical Aggression, Sex Roles, 72, Springer Science+Business Media New York, 509

[63] Ibid., 511

[64] Ibid., 510

[65] Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Uganda, (accessed) 1/10/15)

[66] Hollander, T; Gill, B; (2014). Every Day the War Continues in My Body: Examining the Marked Body in Postconflict Northern Uganda, The International Journal of Transitional Justice, 8, Oxford University Press, 217

[67] Ibid., 218

[68] Vinci, A; (2005). ‘The Strategic Use of Fear by the Lord’s Resistance Army,’ in Small Wars and Insurgencies, 16(3), 370 [69] Hollander, Gill, 217

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid., 224

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid., 229

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid., 228

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid., 227


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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

4 responses to “Can mainstreaming challenge the liberal legacy in human rights?”

  1. oosorio456 says :

    What do you think about bernie sanders

  2. Max says :

    Intersante Post. A pesar del genero, de las diferencias culturales, siguen siendo una base para el dialogo. Gran trabajo, un abrazo.

  3. oosorio456 says :

    It’s an great way to understand how mainstream media is ignoring human rights violations .

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