Creative Scholar &
Professional Intellectual

New Article: Guarding Utopia: law, vulnerability and frustration at the UN Human Rights Committee


In the 1940s activists lobbied for the creation of a binding international bill of rights backed up by an international court. This would form the backbone of the post-World War II order and guarantee lasting peace for all mankind. Seven decades later this utopian vision has been transformed into a cluster of UN human rights treaties accompanied by expert monitoring committees known as treaty bodies. Treaty bodies process documents via ongoing bureaucratic cycles located somewhere between a court session and an audit ritual (Cowan 2014). This duality is a source of strength as well as vulnerability and frustration, reflecting an endless navigation between the ‘utopia’ of a robust and binding legal framework and an ‘apology’ for actual state conduct without effective enforcement mechanisms (Koskenniemi 2005). This article explores how this duality manifests itself in the most authoritative and ‘courtlike’ UN treaty body, the Human Rights Committee, which monitors how states comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The article explores the hope, commitment, excitement and frustration characterizing the Committee’s work in the midst of tedious bureaucratic tasks, simultaneously asking: how is the utopian vision of a world arranged around human rights and the law sustained?

Accepted for publication at Social Anthropology / Anthropologie Sociale for a special issue on ‘Bureaucratizing Utopia’ edited by Julie Billaud & Jane Cowan.