This paper argues that rights are shaped through actual struggles informed by people’s own understandings of what they are justly entitled to. Examining rights from the perspective of actual struggles makes it possible for analysis to transcend accepted normative parameters of human rights debates, question established conceptual categories and expand the range of claims that are validated as rights.
The paper draws out these ‘actor-oriented perspectives’ in the course of reviewing four key debates that have been central to international human rights, showing how actor-informed perspectives question underlying assumptions in the debates and offer the possibility of moving beyond the impasse of some of the debates.
The four key debates are: the extent to which human rights norms are socio-culturally contingent or universally valid; the extent to which the liberal individualist conception of rights permits recognition of group rights; the hierarchy between social/economic and civil/political rights; and the extent to which international human rights should place human rights obligations on non-state actors. The paper concludes with specific lessons that must be borne in mind in researching the linkages between rights, citizenship, participation and accountability.