The Times and Temporalities of International Human Rights Law

by | Mar 10, 2022

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About Kathryn McNeilly

Kathryn McNeilly is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, Queen's University Belfast. Her research expertise is in the area of international human rights law. Kathryn is co-editor of the recently published edited collection, The Times and Temporalities of International Human Rights Law (Hart, 2022).

Image description: An ornate timepiece covered in gold and enamel, as representative of the timepieces of international human rights law.

Time is an element of our everyday lives, something that we encounter as individuals, in our social interactions, and in the institutions and structures that surround us. Given its presence across daily life, it should come as no surprise that time is also relevant to law. Legal scholars have explored this in diverse ways. What does this connection between law and time mean, however, for international human rights lawyers? It is this question that the recently published edited collection The Times and Temporalities of International Human Rights Law responds to.

The Timepieces of International Human Rights Law

The starting point for this exploration is to consider the most obvious concepts of time that shape or intersect with international human rights law, which we call ‘timepieces’.

A first timepiece is progress. Forward-moving progress is an intuitive temporality for regional and United Nations human rights bodies, for non-governmental organisations, and for scholars alike in navigating rights obligations and assessing their realisation. Alongside progress, calendar time – the second timepiece – appears clearly in the focus on the history, origins and development of human rights internationally. Third is the timepiece of cyclicality. This emerges via the focus on cyclical monitoring mechanisms and practices which form a significant part of everyday work in this area of law. A final timepiece is urgency. Human rights at this level are often thought of as working within contexts of urgency to respond to emerging situations of concern or crisis and to draw attention to pressing rights violations across the globe.

In The Times and Temporalities of International Human Rights Law, these traditional timepieces are explored further. For example, linking with calendar time and a focus on the past, Frederick Cowell examines the role of collective memory in establishing and maintaining the authority of the European Court of Human Rights in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The connection between international human rights law and ideas of past, present and future is also explored by authors, including Stephen Young. Focusing on jurisdictional conflicts between tribal peoples, the state, and international human rights, Young highlights a focus on the present in this area of law and subjects within it. Linking with the timepiece of urgency, Mary Hansel explores the focus on crisis which is detectable in international human rights law. Investigating jus cogens norms, she examines how foregrounding ‘emergency time’ may hold potential to overlook attention to the everyday.

Additional Pieces of Time in International Human Rights Law

While they offer a starting point, the timepieces above do not represent the end of discussion. Examination can be expanded further to consider other, less familiar ideas – or pieces – of time, including times that are bitty and mundane, concrete and material, non-linear, fragmented and overlapping, rather than smooth, continuous and predictable, for example. In The Times and Temporalities of International Human Rights Law, many such additional pieces of time appear.

Considering environmental human rights, Julia Dehm highlights the tension that exists between the temporalities of international human rights and the environmental harms that such rights seek to respond to. The latter includes the rhythms of nature and shifts created by ecological challenges which demand attention. Writing on women’s rights and the European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence on the right to life respectively, Kay Lalor and Christos Marneros explore international human rights law through the lens of multitudinous time, capable of holding different temporal rhythms and movements together at once. In a different vein, Fadia Dakka and Daria Davitti focus on the connection between time and space. They examine the material temporal life of human rights in the context of search and rescue at sea, demonstrating how attending to the connection between time and space can assist in understanding jurisdiction in international human rights law in new ways.

What Can We Learn?

Time, therefore, appears highly relevant to human rights at the international level. What comes into view from exploration of the diverse times and temporalities of international human rights law is a future – or, to be more precise, futures – for time as a vehicle of analysis in this field of law. It is possible to see new points of departure or understanding and to approach international human rights from different angles. Taking a more conscious approach to measuring time in this legal system is a fruitful addition to ongoing work by international human rights lawyers and scholars to understand this law more deeply.

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