The Global Language of Human Rights: A Computational Linguistic Analysis

35 Pages Posted: 11 Oct 2017 Last revised: 18 Apr 2019

See all articles by David S. Law

David S. Law

University of Virginia School of Law; The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law

Date Written: October 19, 2017


Human rights discourse has been likened to a global lingua franca, and in more ways than one, the analogy seems apt. Human rights discourse is a language that is used by all yet belongs uniquely to no particular place. It crosses not only the borders between nation-states, but also the divide between national law and international law: it appears in national constitutions and international treaties alike. But is it possible to conceive of human rights as a global language or lingua franca not just in a figurative or metaphorical sense, but in a literal or linguistic sense as a legal dialect defined by distinctive patterns of word choice and usage? Does there exist a global language of human rights that transcends not only national borders, but also the divide between domestic and international law?

Empirical analysis suggests that the answer is yes, but this global language comes in at least two variants or dialects. New techniques for performing automated content analysis enable us to analyze the bulk of all national constitutions over the last two centuries, together with the world’s leading regional and international human rights instruments, for patterns of linguistic similarity and to evaluate how much language, if any, they share in common. Specifically, we employ a technique known as topic modeling that disassembles texts into recurring verbal patterns.

The results highlight the existence of two species or dialects of rights talk — the universalist dialect and the positive-rights dialect — both of which are global in reach and rising in popularity. The universalist dialect is generic in content and draws heavily on the type of language found in international and regional human rights instruments. It appears in particularly large doses in the constitutions of transitional states, developing states, and states that have been heavily exposed to the influence of the international community.

The positive-rights dialect, by contrast, is characterized by its substantive emphasis on positive rights of a social or economic variety, and by its prevalence in lengthier constitutions and constitutions from outside the common law world, especially those of the Spanish-speaking world. Both dialects of rights talk are truly transnational, in the sense that they appear simultaneously in national, regional, and international legal instruments and transcend the distinction between domestic and international law. Their existence attests to the blurring of the boundary between constitutional law and international law.

Keywords: Constitutions, Comparative Constitutional Law, International Law, Lingua Franca, Positive Rights, Universalism, Human Rights, Rights Talk, Constitutional Dialects, Automated Content Analysis, Topic Model, Topic Modeling, Computational Linguistics, Human Rights Treaties

JEL Classification: K00, K19, C88

Suggested Citation

Law, David S., The Global Language of Human Rights: A Computational Linguistic Analysis (October 19, 2017). Law & Ethics of Human Rights, Vol. 12, Issue 1, pp. 111–150 (2018), Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-10-01, University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 2017/032, Available at SSRN:

David S. Law (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law ( email )

Pokfulam Road
Hong Kong, Hong Kong


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