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Future-proofing human rights

Developing thicker forms of accountability

Human rights are increasingly described as in crisis. At one end of the spectrum are those who criticize human rights for quick political gain, with an argumentation that seeks to delegitimize and undermine a system intended to offer protection to those at risk of having their rights violated. At the other end are scholars and practitioners who genuinely worry that the human rights system remains unable to offer adequate protection to all rights-holders. One of their central concerns is that the system does not capture the everyday realities of all these rights-holders. At the heart of the latter critiques lies the realization that formal human rights systems are finding it increasingly difficult to provide solutions to multi-layered human rights challenges, which are occurring in rapidly changing and vastly complex societal contexts.

If human rights are to continue to offer a widely accepted framework for thinking about (social) justice, we urgently need to revisit some of their core assumptions and characteristics.

Because human rights are not spontaneously respected, this endeavor is particularly urgent in respect to human rights accountability, given that a significant accountability gap emerges when accountability mechanisms are not tailored to the real challenges faced by rights-holders.

In spite of a relatively robust legal framework there is a continued reality of human rights violations and rather low degrees of accountability. The aim of this research project is to strengthen human rights law by identifying means or mechanisms that ensure a thicker form of accountability. This project proposes to further develop the concept of accountability so that it can face up to current social challenges, such as COVID-19, corporate abuse or surveillance dilemmas. Our particular concern is with the disconnect between the formal legal system and the lived experiences of those who suffer harms that could logically be – but are not yet – understood as a human rights violation. We therefore examine:

How can thicker accountability for human rights violations be achieved, so as to ensure better human rights protection in line with the everyday experience of rights holders?

This includes the examination of

What counts/should count, as a human rights violation, i.e. what types of substantive wrongs (do not) trigger accountability in practice?

Who can or should be held accountable, but now slips through the net?

How can the human rights framework be altered to accommodate this?

The project adopts a research design that looks for answers to our research questions within human rights law, in the broader legal system, and in broader social and political domains, before forming an integrated understanding of how various approaches to accountability reinforce and enrich one another.

This project proposes a multi-disciplinary analysis that allows us to rethink human rights accountability in the face of current challenges.

The project is a collaboration between the Universities of Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Hasselt.

Read more about the project here.

Or contact the PI-Spokesperson of the project, Tine Destrooper.


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