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Investigating Human Rights Practice in Asia

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Human rights is a rapidly developing area of research, especially in Asia where such scholarship is frequently informed by a sense of urgency. In Asia, the field has grown and developed by engaging with disciplines such as sociology, law, anthropology, and international relations. At the same time, research agendas are often set by practitioners’ needs for a critical analysis of contemporary social and political issues. However, whilst those conducting applied human rights research in Asia often immerse themselves in the field, they tend to lack public forums to present and reflect upon their findings.

This changed on 31 July 2014, when the Institute of Human Rights and Peace at Mahidol University, and the Master of Arts in International Development Studies (MAIDS) program at Chulalongkorn University, organized a one day research symposium to feature the work of human rights researchers in Asia. Bringing together practitioners, graduate students, and academics, the symposium became a forum for diverse themes and discussion. Although there was no common theme, the symposium’s coherence came from its common methodological ground. Each researcher spoke about the application (or lack thereof), or the translation of international human rights norms in particular locales. As presenter after presenter discussed distinct challenges and opportunities, one could not help but recall Levitt and Merry’s description of vernacularization as “the process of appropriation and [the] local adoption of globally generated ideas and strategies” (2009: 441).[1]

This outcome publication, like the symposium from which it came, is a bringing together of diverse experiences, capacities, and interests. There is no one particular point to take away from what follows because a purpose of applied human rights research is to crystallize the field, thereby revealing its many shades, variations, and dynamics. Another purpose of such research is to assess whether popular models and practices are having the desired or rhetorical effect. In the pieces that follow, hopefully, readers will find cause for reflection on conventional paradigms to protect and promote human rights in the region and beyond.


[1]Levitt, P. and Merry, S. (2009) ‘Vernacularization on the ground: Local uses of global women's rights in Peru, China, India, and the United States,’ Global Networks, vol. 9, no. 4, October, pp. 441–461.

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