Pragmatism and Multidimensionality in Human Rights Advocacy

Human Rights Quarterly, Forthcoming 2018

20 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2017 Last revised: 14 Nov 2017

See all articles by Dustin N. Sharp

Dustin N. Sharp

University of San Diego - School of Peace Studies

Date Written: June 30, 2017


Human rights appear to be in a state of existential crisis, with academics proclaiming the “endtimes” or “twilight” of the field and a growing sense of human rights pessimism among many commentators. As an adaptation to the challenging contemporary climate for human rights, some critics have asserted that the field needs to become more pragmatic and flexible, and less legalistic. Unfortunately, these calls for reform are rarely accompanied by details, and the literature on the nature of human rights pragmatism is fairly thin. This article will explore what such a pivot might entail. My central contention is that while more flexible and less law-centered approaches can play a useful role in advocacy, they also come with risks and tradeoffs that need to be assessed. The concept of human rights is fundamentally multidimensional, oscillating between moral, legal and political domains, drawing power from each one of them. A truly pragmatic turn in human rights will not involve categorical sensibilities about the value of law-centered approaches in all times and places, but will instead emphasize the opportunities and advocacy hooks available in a particular context, whether moral, legal, political, or otherwise.

Keywords: Human rights, advocacy, pragmatism, pessimism, international law

Suggested Citation

Sharp, Dustin N., Pragmatism and Multidimensionality in Human Rights Advocacy (June 30, 2017). Human Rights Quarterly, Forthcoming 2018, Available at SSRN: or

Dustin N. Sharp (Contact Author)

University of San Diego - School of Peace Studies ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States

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