Karen Zivi is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan where she teaches courses on human rights, modern political thought, and feminist politics. She is the author of Making Rights Claims: A Practice of Democratic Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2012) as well as articles published in journals such as Journal of Human Rights, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Contemporary Political Theory, and Gender & Politics. She is an editor at Contemporary Political Theory and serves on the editorial board of Citizenship Studies.
Conventional wisdom tells us that we have rights simply by virtue of being human, that we carry these rights with us wherever we go, and that governments are supposed to respect these rights regardless of our citizenship status. And yet, human rights are violated daily.
If we think about rights not as inherited givens but as social constructs, and think about rights claiming as a political practice. We might better understand why this happens and how to respond. We need to recognize rights as something we bring into being and keep alive through considerable effort and vigilance.
This doesn’t mean that the idea of inherent rights or the existence of rights documents is meaningless. But rather that more is involved in making rights a reality than demanding recognition of something supposedly self-evident.
Making rights a conceptual, legal, and practical reality is the provisional result of multiple, varied, and often repeated practices that occur over time and in a variety of locations. Take marriage equality. This new addition to the human rights lexicon remains widely contested, but its growing acceptance and legal reality is the result of decades long activism, multiple legal challenges, and even everyday acts of living as if one had a right to marry someone of the same sex before one ever did. This is the political practice of rights claiming, a practice that seeks to change the way people see and think and thus requires that those who benefit from arrangements of inequality live differently. For this reason, rights will always be something we have to fight for.