The Human Rights Dilemma: Rethinking the Humanitarian Project

92 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2003  

Deborah M. Weissman

University of North Carolina School of Law


This Article provides an interpretive account of the human rights discourse at a time when the U.S. legal community is deepening its relationship with these issues. It maps the context of the human rights project over the past one hundred years, with a critical eye and as a cautionary tale. It reviews the historical circumstances and the ideological framework in which human rights have been appropriated as an instrument of national policy, often to the detriment of humanitarian objectives. It considers the role of law, not only as an instrument by which colonial rule was maintained but as a system that has claimed center stage in the human rights project, often producing outcomes inimical to human rights.

It demonstrates that the disparity in power between colonizer and colonized continues to affect the ongoing development of human rights norms and has resulted in the production of legal remedies that are often incapable of safeguarding international human rights. It uses comparative legal discourse as a way to illustrate how the human rights project stipulates the need to rescue people of other cultures from themselves. The Article argues for a shift in methodological and attitudinal approaches to human rights work and suggests that commitment to human rights must be guided by an awareness of the power relationships from which remedies originate. It contends that without such awareness, humanitarian enterprises may inadvertently result in baneful consequences and implicate the human rights project in the very wrongs it seeks to correct.

Suggested Citation

Weissman, Deborah M., The Human Rights Dilemma: Rethinking the Humanitarian Project. Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: or

Deborah M. Weissman (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States
919-962-5108 (Phone)
919-962-1277 (Fax)

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