Bridging Human Rights and Capabilities: A Critical Analysis of Promises, Limitations and Challenges for Advancing Social Transformation

Valencia Vargas, Areli, and Cecilia Benoit (2009). "Bridging Human Rights and Capabilities: A Critical Analysis of Promises, Limitations and Challenges for Advancing Social Transformation" Paper presented at the 6th annual conference of the HDCA, 10-12 September 2009, Lima, Peru.

The human rights discourse undoubtedly constitutes one of the most powerful rhetorics of current times. Underpinning the appeal of human rights rhetoric is the idealism that human rights can effectively solidify social equity and global justice goals. The language of human rights is currently spread across multiple levels of our social reality, sheltering a wide variety of claims. Activism in this sphere constantly seek redress for injustices and the reversal of the circumstances and factors that place people at risk of suffering rights abuses. Actions are taken with the hope of transforming the genesis of injustices as opposed to accommodating the “status quo” that produces them. However, the strong reliance on legal instruments along with the two common strategies employed by human rights advocates –the violation approach and the methodology of naming and shaming- have proven inadequate in effectively achieving this purpose. These mechanisms are designed to expose the outcomes of a situation rather than targeting its genesis; therefore, they provide a limited capacity for readily exposing the root causes of human rights abuses embedded in long-standing social processes. This identification is a crucial step to foster substantial social transformation. This paper explores to what extent the capability approach is able to assist us in addressing the aforementioned shortcomings of the human rights paradigm. Although the capability approach should not be seen as the panacea for resolving all unanswered questions and problems within the human rights discourse, it does locate human rights advocates in a better position to advance their social transformative goals. In effect, the capability approach has the potential to orient us in a particular manner that we argue will assist us to better understand human rights; specifically, in the case of socio-economic and cultural rights. We suggest viewing the capability approach’s potential contribution as a continuum that incorporates conceptual underpinnings and the richness of integrative methodologies. The last part of the paper briefly describes a community-based research project conducted in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, in order to draw attention into the research methodology utilized and how that contributes to the realisation of human rights and capabilities. This particular case illustrates the research benefits of the incorporation of the voices and validation of experiences of vulnerable population and exemplifies the benefits of capacity building social research.
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