Beyond purely legal or economic analyses of migrant laborer abuses

A post by Safa Peera

Ryan Jones’ paper, “Beyond Kafala: Remedying Human Rights Abuses of Migrant Workers in the Persian Gulf,” examines the kafala system in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain. The kafala is a system of laws and customs used to govern migrant workers in these countries. Some of the more egregious laws tie workers to one employer, enabling the confiscation of the workers’ passports during their stay in the country.

The paper is thought-provoking in that it challenges two existing and quite opposite interpretations of kafala, one legal and the other economic. The legal analysis focuses on the laws in the system of kafala, and sees the repeal of those laws as the key to alleviating the human rights abuses. One case study is Bahrain, which reformed some of the most restrictive laws within kafala. As the Bahraini case illustrates, however, the legal system may not be the ultimate cause of the problem, for the legal reform has failed to curb the human rights violations suffered by migrant workers. Jones sees the focus on legal rules within kafala as an instance of what Susan Marks calls “root cause” analysis in international human rights. Despite their objective of unearthing the “root causes” of human rights abuses, human rights institutions halt the investigation into causes too soon; treat effects as causes; and dismiss certain causes without proper consideration. In the case of kafala, NGOs focus on legal rules, ignoring the role of economic inequality in contributing to migration and to workers’ vulnerabilities vis-à-vis their employers.

Jones then turns to an economic analysis of kafala and the use of migrant workers in the Gulf countries. He examines the assertion made by Professors Eric Posner and Glen Weyl that the current system of migrant workers is doing more to reduce global inequality than any other system in the world—that by allowing the high flow of migrants from some of the poorest countries, the GCC nations are increasing the earning power of migrants in an unparalleled manner. Posner and Weyl recognize that empowering the migrants with political, social, and economic rights will dampen the enthusiasm of the GCC countries to welcome migrants. This in turn will reduce the high amount of remittances sent by the migrants back to their poor home countries, which Posner and Weyl claim are critical to reducing inequality. Posner and Weyl’s claim is more attentive than the legal analysis to the economic inequality underlying the migrant workers’ experiences. Yet Jones is also skeptical of their argument. He points out that it excludes important factors in its analysis including the cost of migration for these workers. He also points out that Posner and Weyl seem unconcerned by the inequality the very system of migrant workers is propagating. So long as the poor migrant class and their home countries are getting richer, they seem content to ignore the resulting proportional increase in wealth in the GCC countries through the cheap, migrant labor.

Perhaps one way to integrate legal and economic analysis would be to compare the condition of the migrant workers who are the focus of this article to migrant workers in the Gulf countries who are governed by the same kafala system but are not subject to similar human rights abuses. The kafala system—with all its legal underpinnings—is used to govern any worker within the country who is not a GCC national. While the abuses are rampant amongst migratory workers due to the lack of leverage they wield, the same laws govern Western and other nationals who work the lucrative jobs at Saudi Aramco (the state owned oil company) and elsewhere. Perhaps a comparison with this class of workers can provide clues as to how to best address the abuses against the non-professional, low-income workers. The answer may or may not have to do with the laws in kafala. While Jones’ paper does not go so far as to examine such a claim, perhaps because of the common perception that kafala only affects the powerless migrant workers, his research helps lay the foundation for such an exploration.

Safa Peera is a JD candidate at Texas Law, and is a 2015-16 scholar at the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice. She can be reached at

#1/2016: Ryan Jones, “Beyond Kafala: Remedying Human Rights Abuses of Migrant Workers in the Persian Gulf” (April 2016)

PDF: Ryan Jones, “Beyond Kafala: Remedying Human Rights Abuses of Migrant Workers”


The six nations that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—have found themselves severely criticized for the abhorrent conditions that migrant workers frequently face in these countries. One common target of criticism is the kafala system, used to regulate migrant workers in the Persian Gulf and neighboring Arab states. The kafala system requires foreign workers to obtain a sponsor—typically the migrant’s employer—and receive permission before leaving or changing jobs. Many critics argue that the power kafala gives to employers fosters human rights abuses, including nonpayment of wages, inhumane living conditions, human trafficking, as well as physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. As a result, these critics have called for the repeal of kafala as well as a push for additional labor law reform and stricter enforcement. However, as evidenced by Bahrain’s unsuccessful efforts to curtail abuse by dismantling kafala through outreach and labor law reform, merely removing the traditional pillars of kafala is insufficient. This paper examines the method of “root cause analysis” employed by many NGOs and activist groups, drawing on Susan Marks’ critique of such thinking. I argue that attention to legal conditions is insufficient, and that abuses in the GCC are unlikely to significantly subside until gross economic inequality between labor source nations and the GCC is reduced. I also consider an argument made by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl suggesting that the most effective way to combat economic inequality between countries is to encourage migration as it exists in the GCC—by drawing extremely high numbers of a country’s workforce from some of the world’s poorest nations.

About the author:

Ryan Jones is a JD student at the University of Texas School of Law.

Keywords: Kafala, migrant workers, Bahrain, economic inequality, root cause analysis

Violence Committed by Americans against (Foreign) Americans: A Follow-Up on Mark Danner’s Lecture

Mark Danner’s portrayal of the muted denunciation of human rights abuses during the now more than decade-long U.S.-led global “War on Terror” and the remission of the once honorable paradigm of the exposure of injustice leading to redress were especially poignant reminders of the current crisis in humanitarian thought and activism. In her post, Natalie Davidson speculates that the lack of public protest and political accountability derives from the fact that the abuses “mainly affect foreigners living outside U.S. territory.” That explanation, however, is complicated, if not obviated, by the death-by-drone of Anwar al-Awlaki (also al-Aulaqi) in Yemen on 30 September 2011. Awlaki, a U.S.-born and U.S.-educated radical Muslim preacher, had been the target of a protracted mission to eliminate him, in an operation code-named “Objective Troy.” In his recent book, which takes its title from that code-name, prize-winning journalist Scott Shane reads that assassination mission to “eliminate” the compatriot as a near-epic mortal combat between the “president” and the “terrorist,” assisted by none other than the “drone.” Barely two weeks after his own violent demise, Awlaki’s teenaged son Abdulrahman was also killed while eating at an outdoor café in Yemen (some say accidentally, others aver the teenager’s alleged own “radicalization” as the rationale), again in a lethal drone strike. He, too, was a U.S. citizen.

In April 2014, the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. granted the defendants’ “motion to dismiss” in the case of Nasser al-Aulaqi v Leon Panetta et al. (2012). Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Nasser al-Awlaqi, father of Anwar and grandfather of Abdulrahman, had charged the named U.S. officials with the unlawful deaths and extrajudicial executions without “charge, trial, or conviction” of his near relatives. The senior al-Awlaki had brought a similar charge in an earlier case against Barack Obama, Leon Panetta (director of the CIA), and Robert Gates (Secretary of Defense) for violations of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting “unreasonable seizure.” His claim in Al-Aulaqi v. Obama (2010) that “targeted killing” of U.S. citizens violated the Constitution had likewise been dismissed, with the Court noting in a lengthy opinion that the plaintiff’s claims raised “non-justiciable political questions.”

The District Court’s repeated, if predictable, dismissals have so far failed to galvanize concerted rejoinders from a larger U.S. citizenry. Yet, the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the death by drone of the imam and his son, and their elder’s enduring insistence on the rule of law and the integrity of the U.S. Constitution have not been dismissed from either the political annals of contemporary history or their popular cultural re-enactments. In Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill’s 2013 monumental account of the construction of “the world as a battlefield” and George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s nefarious waging of the “global war on terror,” Scahill interweaves Nasser al-Awlaki’s personal struggle for justice for his son and grandson with what Scahill calls the “story of how the United States came to embrace assassination as a central part of its security policy” and the “story of the expansion of covert U.S. wars.” The latter includes imbroglios that feature “stories of insiders who have spent their lives in the shadows,” or, in the words of Dick Cheney, “on the dark side.” This storied history of Anwar al-Aulaki’s political odyssey and ensuing family saga is also featured in Shane’s Objective Troy (2015). The book narrates the parallel lives of Barack Obama and Anwar al-Aulaki, although, as Shane tellingly if cynically admits in his Prologue, the two “men would never meet, except virtually, clashing in the battleground of ideas, where the cleric’s mastery of the internet would serve his jihadist cause, and violently, when Obama dispatched the drones that carried out Awlaki’s execution.”

Scahill is adamant, even against the opinionated rulings of the U.S. District Court and the apparent lack of interest on the part of Awlaki’s “fellow Americans,” that “Awlaki’s case would cut to the heart of one of the key questions raised by the increasing role targeted assassinations were playing in U.S. foreign policy. Could the American government assassinate its own citizens without due process?” And Shane predicts that Awlaki would become a “bigger brand,” a veritable living legend, given that, as the investigative journalist describes the phenomenon, “One factor in the dark portrayal of drones [is] that stories trump facts in the human imagination, and drone strikes produced compelling stories.”

If the story has not compelled the political or legal change that some might have anticipated, Anwar al-Awlaki’s biographically tragic fate has served, whether in sinister martyrdom or with heroic mien, as legal – and cultural – precedent, as drones themselves are set to become the very stuff of the contemporary international thriller. Indeed, in Drone (2013), the first of political scientist Mike Maden’s fictional Troy Pearce trilogy, the protagonist – a former U.S. government employee and current CEO of a “private security firm specializing in drone technologies” – explains that “a considerable plurality of Americans on both sides of the political spectrum were still troubled by the use of lethal force against American citizens without benefit of trial, whether or not drones were used, even if the threat was imminent and catastrophic.” The same issue, however paraphrased, will haunt Maden’s two subsequent Troy Pearce novels, Blue Warrior (2014) and Drone Command (2015). It also underwrites former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism Richard A. Clarke’s Sting of the Drone (2014) and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’s Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage (2012).

It would seem after all, as Natalie Davidson has noted, that if “Danner asks how we can return to legality,” it is all the more the case that “the story he tells can also be understood as one in which law, with its indeterminacy and malleability, its sometimes absurd fictions and bureaucratic vocabulary, plays a key role in reassuring government officials that even acts such as torture and execution are acceptable” (emphasis added). In a world where legal and political discourse are imbued with fictions that enable violence, might fiction ironically be the most promising arena in which to challenge targeted killing?

Perhaps not. Jeremy Corbyn might not write international thrillers but the newly elected British Labour leader did protest strenuously – to the thrill of some of his constituents and the indignant ire of others – the death-by-U.S.-drone of one of his compatriots. Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John,” was slain in November 2015 in the targeted killing of a British citizen, a deed that the nation’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, had condoned as committed in “self-defense.” Cameron’s reference to self-defense echoed the rationalizations of his U.S. counterparts in their rendition of ratiocination in the waging of the “forever war” executed by UAVs (“unmanned aerial vehicles”) or, as some weapons analysts and “whodunnit” fans might prefer, RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). Whether disarticulated in legal language or spellbound through generic whodunnit intrigues, the questions persist, “loiter” in drone-speak. Might the still muted decibels of denunciation yet become a mobilized chorus of dissent and resistance? What would such a raucous uproar require? And will the culprits at last be brought to justice?

Barbara Harlow is the Louann and Larry Temple Centennial Professor of English Literatures at the University of Texas at Austin and on the Editorial Committee of the Human Rights Working Paper Series. She is author of Resistance Literature, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention, After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing, and co-editor of Imperialism and Orientalism: A Documentary Sourcebook and Archives of Empire: Vol I and Vol II. She can be reached at


What Do we Do with What we Know? The War on Terror and Human Rights

We at the Rapoport Center were privileged last month to hear journalist Mark Danner talk about human rights and the War on Terror at the inaugural Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold Endowed Lecture in Peace, Social Justice and Human Rights (for more information and a full video of the lecture, click here), titled “Spiraling Down: Human Rights, Endless War.” Danner offered an incisive analysis of the current state of the United States’ War on Terror, an analysis that should not only sound alarm bells among European leaders as they choose military strikes as their response to the latest attack by ISIS in Paris, but also raises difficult questions about the part a human rights framework could play in putting an end to torture, indefinite detention, targeted assassinations and wiretapping by the U.S. executive.

Danner nostalgically described the Watergate scandal, which exposed the Nixon administration’s illegal activities against political opponents and led to the president’s resignation under threat of impeachment, as his political coming-of-age. Watergate, in Danner’s view, is a demonstration of “how the system is supposed to work”: a revelation of governmental wrongdoing by journalists, followed by investigations by Congressional committees and the courts, and finally punishment when the President resigns.

For Danner, contemporary American politics operate according to a very different logic. Instead of cycles of injustice-revelation-justice, human rights are now in a state of “frozen scandal.” Torture by and at the instigation of the U.S. military has been widely written about, including in a long Senate report. The practice has been denounced by President Obama, but other forms of gross human rights violations soon emerged. The Obama administration has made extensive use of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, killing between 3,500 and 5,000 individuals. Meanwhile, prisoners cleared for release continue to languish at Guantánamo under the legal fiction that they can neither be tried nor released, for they are prisoners held captive until the end of hostilities. Although these governmental abuses are well-known, there is no change, no expiation. The liberal assumption that exposing injustice will lead to its correction has not been borne out. This insight leads Sissy Farenthold to ask, when introducing Mark Danner: “what are we going to do about what we know?”

Danner sees the “frozen scandal” of human rights violations as one facet of the state of endless war inaugurated in September 2001 when Congress authorized the use of military force in the aftermath of September 11. The War on Terror has not only failed spectacularly to reduce terrorism, as the rise of ISIS and reemergence of the Taliban indicate. It has also provided the key infrastructure for torture, for it transforms “prison without trial” into “wartime detention,” and “torture” into “enhanced interrogation technique.” The war, though indiscernible in Americans’ everyday life, allows gross governmental violence to appear legal. Drone killing is permitted by government lawyers when there is a “continuous imminent threat”. Danner reports that lawyers in the Obama administration are now developing the concept of “elongated imminence” to further detail the conditions under which targeted killings is justified.

Where do we go from here? Sitting in the audience and listening to Danner, it seemed to me that it is not only the Watergate model that seems to have waned. If exposure and knowledge of human rights abuses do nothing to curb their commission, the traditional model of human rights reporting also seems insufficient. Or perhaps these two models are not so much broken as inapt to address violence committed by Americans against foreigners. The Watergate model assumed governmental abuses of American citizens; the human rights model traditionally targets repression by a foreign government of its own citizens. The human rights abuses in the War on Terror, in contrast, mainly affect foreigners living outside U.S. territory. What avenues of justice-seeking can address this sort of violence?

One path currently popular among international human rights activists around the world for addressing state-sponsored violence is criminal prosecution. Yet Danner does not think that prosecutions of offenders, whether high-ranking officials or low-level torturers, are feasible. Nor will they achieve much change in his view. He suggests instead that a truth commission might lead to a profound political acknowledgment and rejection of torture. Most importantly, Americans must combat the politics of fear fueling their country’s permanent war.

What part should law and human rights activism play in pulling the United States out of the state of exception? Danner asks how we can return to legality – but the story he tells can also be understood as one in which law, with its indeterminacy and malleability, its sometimes absurd fictions and bureaucratic vocabulary, plays a key role in reassuring government officials that even acts such as torture and execution are acceptable. Is talk of “continuous imminent threat” to justify targeted killings a perversion of law, or is this legal logic at work? What tools do human rights activists have at their disposal to effectively combat such uses of legal discourse? If denunciation is insufficient, and what is needed is political mobilization, how does human rights activism retain its relevance?

Natalie Davidson is a PhD Candidate at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law, and is a 2015-16 research fellow at the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice where she chairs the Editorial Committee of the Human Rights Working Paper Series. She can be reached at

Remaking the Rules: Bureaucratic Discretion and Women’s Rights

written by guest contributor Pamela Neumann

In her thought-provoking working paper, Lina Buchely makes the case for a new understanding of “bureaucratic activism” through a case study of women who work in Colombia’s Community Welfare Houses (CWH), a state-funded social program intended to improve the health and education of children. Bureaucratic activism is usually understood as the actions of state officials which are outside or explicitly against established laws; for example, a police officer who does not follow an existing protocol for handling a domestic violence case. Buchely demonstrates how many of these women, known as “community mothers,” exercise significant discretion in their role as “street level bureaucrats,” calling into question the “inevitability and certainty of the rule of the law” (p. 7). For example, although the stated aim of the CWHs is to benefit children, activist community mothers articulate and act upon an alternative vision of their work—supporting the needs of other women. Buchely’s analysis has many implications for the design of community programs intended to enhance welfare.

Given the decentralized nature of the program (which is run out of women’s homes) and their affiliation with a prominent government ministry, community mothers possess significant discretion which they regularly exercise to subvert program criteria, such as the program’s hours of operation or the acceptance/rejection of certain children. Early in the paper, Buchely provocatively claims, “community mothers benefit both from belonging and not belonging to the State” (p. 8). However, the text does not flesh out this intriguing assertion (one that might find echoes in the work of sociologist Nancy Naples), but rather illustrates how the discretion of community mothers manifests itself, and explicates a typology of bureaucratic activism based on (1) the social networks of community mothers and (2) their awareness of their discretionary authority.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, some scholars and policy makers assume that laws will be implemented exactly as written. Buchely explicitly seeks to combat this bias, and yet at times unwittingly follows a similar logic, noting for example that “daily life in the CWH is not mediated by…technical guideline[s] as would be expected” (p. 11; emphasis mine).

Why should we expect people to follow laws or policies precisely as written or intended? I think that we should expect that subjective decision-making and informal transactions of state and quasi-state actors in street level bureaucracies permeates much of their everyday routines. If we assume that contradictions between policy and practice are actually quite common, we can move beyond explaining why people don’t follow a particular policy, and instead try to explain why they do what they do, and what the various unintended consequences of these actions may be for differently situated individuals and communities.

In this vein, Buchely’s work prompted several important questions. What conditions affect the discretion exercised by street-level bureaucrats? In this instance, discretion may be paradoxically enabled by the state’s limited capacity for oversight and the considerable respect that affiliation with this specific program afforded community mothers in their neighborhoods. Would a less desirable government program with low oversight produce a similar kind of bureaucratic activism? How might these dynamics differ in the context of a highly politicized bureaucracy?

Here I think of my own research on the case of Nicaragua, which recently instituted neighborhood level “Family Councils” (Gabinetes de Familia), affiliated with the ruling Sandinista party, which are now charged with hearing gender-based violence cases before they go to the police. This worrisome development means that the already high levels of bureaucratic discretion found within Nicaragua’s criminal justice system will now be extended to highly political neighborhood groups which are unlikely to take women’s claims of domestic violence seriously. Indeed, even within Nicaragua’s specialized comisarias (women’s police stations, where the police are all women), the claims of women victims are often met with suspicion.

Workshop run by a feminist organization in Nicaragua on laws addressing violence against women

Workshop run by a feminist organization in Nicaragua on laws addressing violence against women

One particular incident I observed during my fieldwork exemplifies this dynamic. One morning as I sat in the waiting room of a local comisaria, a woman in her early 20s came in, clearly experiencing emotional distress. As she tearfully described her situation, the captain interjected, telling her she should go to a therapist first and return to the police when she knew what she wanted. In this situation, the official perceived the young woman’s emotional vulnerability as evidence that she was not yet prepared for the grueling legal process. This official used her discretion to punish the young woman for her perceived weakness rather than come to her aid. Over time, these kinds of practices reproduce particular hierarchies of femininity which limit some women’s access to legal justice.

Given these realities, is there not a risk that certain kinds of bureaucratic discretion may reproduce gendered, racial, and class-based hierarchies? For example, Buchely notes that community mothers tend to prefer the children of friends and family members, and actively seek to exclude or expel “bad people” (p. 19). This demonstrates that women and families with greater social capital (e.g. positive relationships with community mothers) are more likely to receive preferential treatment. Although activist community mothers intend to support women’s reproductive labor, clearly not all women and children are deemed worthy of such assistance. Thus, even within a fairly homogenous neighborhood, community mothers may perpetuate certain forms of social exclusion. In my view, more systematic attention is needed to these less positive implications to balance the author’s generally favorable portrayal of activist community mothers. Future research should address these questions by examining how different forms of bureaucratic discretion mitigate or exacerbate gender and racial inequalities.

Pamela Neumann

Pamela Neumann is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas, Austin. Her current research examines women’s experiences navigating the judicial process in Nicaragua in cases of domestic violence. She has also conducted research in Peru on community perceptions of environmental contamination. Her work has been published in Gender & Society, Social Problems, Qualitative Sociology, and Latin American Politics and Society. Pamela is also a co-author of Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City (UT Press). Her paper “‘We are not retarded’: Explaining Collective Inaction in a Company Town” won the SSSP’s Conflict, Social Action, and Change Graduate Student Paper Award in 2015.

#2/2015: Lina Buchely, “Bureaucratic activism and Colombian community mothers: The daily construction of the rule of law”

PDF: Lina Buchely, “Bureaucratic activism and Colombian community mothers”


Whereas mainstream literature affirms that the rule of law is an abstract concept that comes from democracy and liberal institutional systems, people in the local Global South do not experience this certainty. In some ways, the rule of law is a product of the daily life transactions and bargains of social actors. This article analyzes the case of community mothers as street-level bureaucrats who produce the rule of law in their local spaces, within an institutional or democratic mechanism. This case study of community mothers, developed between June 2012 and February 2013, shows how street-level bureaucrats use the rule of law as a tool of empowerment. Community mothers display an undocumented agency that develops a feminist agenda of helping fellow women, contrary to the government agenda that promotes childcare and the early childhood program policies. In this sense, the fieldwork undertaken portrays mothers and children as conflicting actors. Despite this, the social policy hides this conflict reproducing the normative image that ideologically links mothers with their children. The results of this research project reveal, therefore, that the local agents as the street level bureaucrats play an unexpected role in the power dynamics inherent to the rule of law.

About the author:

Lina Buchely earned her doctorate in law from Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, Colombia) in 2014. She is currently a professor and director of the Gender Studies Group at Universidad Icesi (Cali, Colombia).

Keywords: community mothers, feminism, Latin America, street level bureaucracy, rule of law

#1/2015: Carla Silva-Muhammad, “Eliciting Self-determination: The Kayapo Mobilization Through Activism and Global Indigenous Media”

PDF: Silva-Muhammad, “Eliciting Self-determination”


Exactly how do indigenous actors elicit the right of self-determination as inherited, and to what extent does such agency reconstitute or validate human rights norms? This essay proposes that within their unique project of self-representation and activism, the Kayapo indigenous society is indeed reformulating the concept of self-determination. I suggest that by denouncing injustice and human rights violations through self-documentation and use of global indigenous media, protests, and political alliances, this indigenous group is not only claiming reparations from the Brazilian government, but also reshaping the language of human rights. Moreover, this essay explores how the Kayapo communities engage in activism pertaining to the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, developing an international political identity in order to guarantee their right to self-determination and survival.

Keywords: indigenous peoples, self-determination, collective rights, global indigenous media

#2/2014: Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, “Human Security and Women’s Human Rights: Reinforcing Protection in the Context of Violence Against Women”

PDF: Estrada-Tanck, “Human Security and Women’s Human Rights”


Considering the human security approach to critical risks and vulnerabilities, this paper explores violence against women as one of the most pervasive and widespread threats worldwide. While there is a general understanding that the human security analysis and the human rights legal framework intersect, so far the ways in which the two concepts can mutually reinforce each other has rarely been assessed. Thus, this paper looks more closely at the UN conception of human security in relation specifically to violence against women. It reflects critically on how a gendered human security would have to be shaped and studies its connection with human rights, covering the UN and regional normative landscapes and reviewing paradigmatic cases by the Inter-American and European Courts of Human Rights as exemplifying some of the potentials of the human security-human rights symbiosis. The concept of violence against women, strongly developed by international human rights law, has seldom been contemplated explicitly in human security concerns of violence. This text then examines the consequences of applying a human security lens to the legal analysis of violence against women and their human rights, and of including the human rights definition of violence against women within the human security sphere. In doing so, it spells out the added value of this dialogue and brings to light the synergies between human security and the human rights of women experiencing structural vulnerability in everyday life.

Keywords: women’s rights; violence against women; human security

#1/2014: Aziz Rana, “Constitutionalism and the Foundations of the Security State”

PDF: Rana, “Constitutionalism and the Foundations of the Security State”


Scholars often argue that the culture of American constitutionalism provides an important constraint on aggressive national security practices. This article challenges the conventional account by highlighting instead how modern constitutional reverence emerged in tandem with the national security state, functioning critically to reinforce and legitimate government power rather than simply to place limits on it. This unacknowledged security origin of today’s constitutional climate speaks to a profound ambiguity in the type of public culture ultimately promoted by the Constitution. Scholars are clearly right to note that constitutional loyalty has created political space for arguments more respectful of civil rights and civil liberties, making the very worst excesses of the past less likely. But at the same time, public discussion around protecting the Constitution – and with it a distinctively American way of life – has also served as a key justification for strengthening the government’s security infrastructure over the long run.

Rana argues that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, significant popular skepticism actually existed concerning the basic legitimacy of the Constitution. But against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution, a combination of corporate, legal, and military elites initiated a concerted campaign to establish constitutional support as the paramount prerequisite of loyal citizenship. Crucially, such elites viewed the entrenchment of constitutional commitment as fundamentally a national security imperative; they called for dramatically and permanently extending the reach of the federal government’s coercive apparatus. In the process, defenders of the Constitution reproduced many of the practices we most associate with extremism and wartime xenophobia: imposed deference and ideological uniformity, appeals to exceptionalism and cultural particularity, militarism, and political repression. Moreover, the problem with such World War I origins for today’s constitutional climate is not simply that of a troubling but distant past. Rather, the foundations developed nearly a century ago continue to intertwine constitutional attachment with the prerogatives of the national security state in ways that often go unnoticed – emphasizing the real difficulties of separating the liberal and illiberal dimensions of American constitutional culture.

Keywords: constitutionalism; national security state; American constitutional culture

#1/2013: Kali Yuan, “Translating Rights into Agency: Advocacy, Aid and the Domestic Workers Convention”

PDF: Yuan, “Translating Rights into Agency: Advocacy, Aid and the Domestic Workers Convention”


In June 2011, the International Labor Conference adopted the Domestic Workers Convention (the Convention), the first international labor standard to set out legal obligations that specifically protect and improve the working lives of domestic workers. This paper argues that previous regulatory attempts to protect domestic workers have been inadequate and, although it is an improvement, the Convention is currently also an insufficient legal instrument. However, although the Convention is not yet in force, educational and advocacy work on this legal instrument are already underway. For example, in September 2011, I volunteered as an advocacy officer with the recently-established Working Women’s Centre Timor Leste on its first project, providing education, support and advocacy based on the rights expressed in the Convention to domestic workers in Dili and four other rural Districts. My experiences while working with this project suggested that a convention, as a legal instrument, can still have significant impact at a grassroots level without reliance on its legal mechanisms. This paper argues that the Convention may still be effective in improving the lives of domestic workers, by changing norms at the grassroots level. Crucially, the degree of effectiveness will depend on how successfully the Convention’s norms can be translated into local contexts.  But there are tensions within the process of translation: between remaking rights resonantly and faithfully; between affecting local consciousness and retaining the essence of the Convention’s rights. How then to successfully harness the normative power of the Convention? This paper considers Community Conversations – a radical, participatory approach where domestic workers themselves drive the translation process – as one method of negotiating the tension inherent in translation. Such an approach may effectively engender the key Convention rights of solidarity and collective industrial agency. Through this approach, the normative power of the Convention’s legal obligations may successfully affect the protection of labor rights at the grassroots level.

Keywords: Domestic workers; labor rights; participatory development; law and society


El junio de 2011, la Organización Internacional del Trabajo adoptó elConvenio sobre las Trabajadoras y los Trabajadores Domésticos, el primer estándar laboral internacional que incluye obligaciones legales especificas para proteger y mejorar las vidas de trabajadores domésticos.  Este artículo sostiene que los anteriores intentos de reglamentación para proteger a los derechos de los trabajadores domésticos no han sido suficientes, y que aunque es una mejora, el Convenio es actualmente un instrumento jurídico insuficiente. Sin embargo, a pesar de que el Convenio no ha entrado en vigor, la labor educativa y de promoción de este instrumento legal ya están en marcha.  Por ejemplo, en septiembre de 2011, trabaje de manera voluntaria como encargada de labores de apoyo y defensa en el primer proyecto del recientemente establecido Centro de Trabajo de las Mujeres de Timor Leste, proporcionando educación, apoyo y defensa basada en los derechos del Convenio para trabajadores domésticos en Dili y otros cuatro distritos rurales.   Mis experiencias trabajando con este proyecto sugieren que un convenio, como un instrumento legal, aun puede tener un impacto importante al nivel local sin depender de los mecanismos legales.  Este artículo sostiene que el Convenio todavía puede ser efectivo para mejorar las vidas de trabajadores domésticos, mediante el cambio de normas al nivel local.  Fundamentalmente, el grado de eficacia dependerá de cuan efectivamente las normas del Convenio puedan ser traducidas al nivel local.  Pero existen tensiones dentro del proceso de traducción: entre reconstruir esos derechos resonantemente y fielmente al mismo tiempo; entre afectar la conciencia local y mantener la esencia de los derechos del Convenio. Entonces, ¿cómo aprovechar con éxito el poder normativo del Convenio?  Este artículo considera las Conversaciones Comunitarias – un enfoque radical y participatorio donde los mismos trabajadores domésticos manejan el proceso – como un método para negociar la tensión inherente en la traducción.  Quizás aún más fundamentalmente, esta metodología puede generar derechos claves del Convenio tales como solidaridad y agencia industrial colectiva.  A través de esta metodología, la fuerza normativa de las obligaciones legales del Convenio puede contribuir a la protección de los derechos laborales de los trabajadores domésticos.

Palabras claves:  Trabajadores domésticos; derechos laborales; desarrollo participativo; derecho y sociedad

About the author:
Kali Yuan completed a Juris Doctor (Honours, 1st Class) at the Australian National University in 2012.   Prior to undertaking the graduate law program, she completed a Bachelor of International Studies (Development Studies) at the University of New South Wales in 2008.  Since late 2010, Yuan has worked at the Australian Attorney-General’s Department in the Human Rights Policy Branch and Indigenous Justice and Community Safety Branch.  Yuan has worked at the employment law firm Slater & Gordon and will begin working at the Australian Agency for International Development in 2013.  Yuan’s academic and professional interests include gender, labour law, international human rights law, and international development and aid.