Social Science Baha

Lecture Series

Redefining Human Rights Through the Lens of Critical Theory

Sarah Paoletti
Lecture Series LXXXI
January 5, 2015

Sarah Paoletti
Redefining Human Rights through the Lens of Critical Theory

Critiques of international practice of human rights law often point to the imperialist narratives and victim-essentialising that are often perpetuated in the practice applying with equal force to both international and domestic human rights arenas, including to the direct representation of vulnerable individuals experiencing human rights violations. Human rights practitioners often struggle alongside students to develop lawyering strategies and approaches that are responsive to those critiques yet still are effective in achieving the goals of clients – be they individuals, groups or organisations.

These challenges, while novel for human rights practitioners, are familiar terrain for many poverty lawyers who have long struggled in the context of direct representation of poor, marginalised clients, and engagement in law reform and impact advocacy efforts. Clinicians in other areas of social justice, particularly those working in the poverty law arena, have developed a rich body of scholarship in this area that has itself been influenced by the corpus of critical legal and social theory.

This lecture will explore the ways in which critical theory has been introduced to address these vexing questions concerning victim essentialisation and othering in poverty and community-development law clinics in the US as well as explore strategies for redefining human rights practice of law in a way that is responsive to critical theorists and that informs and expands our teaching, our advocacy, and our students’ sense of what it means to be a human rights lawyer. In the process, it will explore the changing role that human rights law and advocacy has come to play in social justice initiatives in the US.

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 Listen to or download lecture in audio format


Sarah Paoletti, JD, American University Washington College of Law (1998) and BA, Yale University (1992), is a Practice Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she founded and directs the Transnational Legal Clinic, the law school’s international human rights and immigration clinic. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, migration, and labour law which is also the subject of her presentations at the United Nations and the Organisation of American States.

Professor Paoletti is the co-author of Migrant Workers’ Access to Justice at Home: Nepal (2014) and Migrant Workers’ Access to Justice at Home: Indonesia (2013). Other representative scholarship of hers include ’Transnational Approaches to Transnational Exploitation: A Proposal for Bi-National Migrant Rights Clinics’ in University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law 1171 (2009), and ‘Redefining Human Rights Lawyering Through the Lens of Critical Theory: Lessons for Pedagogy and Practice’ in Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law & Policy 337 (2011) (co-author).

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