The ideology of Human Rights: on the semiotics of having rights and the politics of being human

Allan M. Hillani


In the rights Declarations of the 18th Century, rights are defined as universal and not linked to social status. They are taken to be “self-evident” truths, not an aspiration or a political aim, and everyone is already born with them, regardless of State recognition. However, the aftermath of the liberal revolutions and the history of the following centuries did not cease to contest this claim. In the present paper, my aim is not to present a defense of or an attack on human rights, but rather to understand what they are. In order to do this, however, I believe we should inquire what does “having rights” mean, that is, investigate the semiotics involved in rights discourse. For this reason, I will avoid engaging in the discussions that attempt to find the content or the “foundation” of human rights (be it morality, capability, or an institutional understanding of politics). Instead, I propose to apply the Greimasian semiotic rectangle to the system of signification resulting from the meaning of “having rights”, and in doing so, derive the consequences of this application and present the “ideological” role human rights play in the relationship between law and politics.


Ideology; Human Rights; Semiotics; Greimas; Rancière

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