Sovereignty transformed: a sociology of human rights




This paper examines how global interdependencies and the consolidation of a human rights discourse are transforming national sovereignty. Social researchers frequently address the supremacy of state sovereignty and the absoluteness of human rights as mutually exclusive categories. However, rather than presupposing that a universal rights discourse is necessarily leading to the demise of sovereignty, we suggest that an increasingly de-nationalized conception of legitimacy is contributing to a reconfiguration of sovereignty itself. Through the analytic prism of historical memories – which refers to shared understandings specific pasts carry for present concerns of a political community – we provide an explanatory factor for the salience of human rights norms as a globally available repertoire of legitimate claim making. While states retain most of their sovereign functions, their legitimacy is no longer exclusively conditioned by a contract with the nation, but also by their adherence to a set of nation-transcending human rights ideals. Legitimacy is mediated by how willing states are to engage with ‘judicial memories’ of human rights abuses and their articulation in cosmopolitan legal frames. Empirically, we focus on war crime trials and how legal inscriptions of memories of human rights abuses are recasting the jurisdiction of International Law. The readiness of states to engage with rights abuses is becoming politically and culturally consequential, as adherence to global human rights norms confers legitimacy.