The Temporal Life of International Human Rights Law: Three Ways to Think It Through

Kathryn McNeilly,
Senior Lecturer in Law,
Queen’s University Belfast

We all have a connection to time in our everyday lives. It is hard to imagine our existence without ideas of standardised time, clock screens, calendars, deadlines, time limits, transitions and other temporal objects and experiences. When it comes to our work as scholars, students or practitioners of law, however, we often do not consider legal domains, structures and institutions to also have an intimate connection to time. Yet, just like us, law has a temporal life which is diverse, complicated and even, sometimes, fraught. The limits of our understanding regarding law’s connection to time particularly come to the fore at the level of international law, including the sphere in which I research: international human rights. More is needed to apprehend the temporal nature of human rights internationally, and to grasp the socio-legal insights which may emerge in doing so.

So, what does it mean to make a connection between international human rights law and time? There are a number of ways to think this through. Here I will outline just three. First, at a very basic level, we can become more conscious that temporal ideas, rhythms and flows are closely connected with the everyday activity of this area of law. Timelines for action, future goals and targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals, critical scrutiny of past and present violations, urgent short-term action, handling of disruption, remembering histories, addressing longer-term trends such as climate change are just some examples of the temporal work that international human rights law undertakes. These kinds of activities will be familiar – they drive human rights internationally – but their temporal nature is not often foregrounded. Reframing such everyday work in this way, it is possible to see how human rights are always implicated in time, as temporal phenomena characterise their practice.

Second, we can apprehend this area of law as creating ideas of temporality, rather than existing against a backdrop of natural, pre-existing time. Law and time scholars have shown how national law generates time in humdrum ways in locations such as the courtroom, the legislature and wider ‘non-legal’ spaces. This includes ideas of linear time, reversibility (via precedent) as well as ideas such as transition (think about gender recognition legislation) and balance (consider working time regulations).[1] The same can be said of international human rights law. The temporalities this law produces are diverse, but one particularly recognisable example is cyclicality. To further the overarching aim of human rights – achievement of a future world where rights are fully protected – the international legal system has established rhythms of cyclical monitoring. These are created by treaty monitoring bodies and, more recently, by the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review. In requiring states to submit periodic reports summarising rights protection in their jurisdiction, cyclical time is produced and placed at the heart of international human rights law practice. More than a purely legal temporality alone, this cyclicality also shapes how grassroots human rights actors organise their work and stage socio-political interventions from the local.

The above insights focus to a great extent on the everyday, micro practice of this area of law. However, third, time is also relevant to human rights internationally because, in a more macro sense, we read and understand such law through temporal lenses. These lenses are not fixed – they are potentially fluid and multiple – and should not be taken for granted. The dominant lens through which human rights have been read is a modern understanding of time driven by linear progress. In this approach, the past, present and future follow from one another in a progressive way. This prioritises an understanding of human rights as global norms which facilitate a move from the past (where rights are not protected), to the present (where legal obligations to address this past are signed up to), and the future (where human rights will ultimately be achieved). This, however, is only one approach to time and, importantly, not one which maximises the radical potential of international human rights as a socio-legal discourse.

In my article ‘Are Rights Out of Time? International Human Rights Law, Temporality, and Radical Social Change’, I explore an alternative temporal lens which this law might be read through. This is one which is not committed to a linear relation between past, present and future but, instead, is untimely in nature. By this, I mean that it places emphasis on the future, understanding it as something that is always unpredictable, unknowable and not necessarily progressing straightforwardly from what came before. This, I argue, holds enhanced radical potential because it allows human rights to be more open to ‘the new’: to unexpected insights and to the people, voices or perspectives which are silenced by predictable linear rhythms connecting past, present and future. If we embrace open futures driven by the new, rather than tying ourselves to a future that follows predictably from the past and present, we may discover a different approach to politics, power, and the structuring of social life. Other futures may emerge and be nurtured. Read through this alternative temporal lens as holding potential to place emphasis on untimeliness and more open, non-linear futures, international human rights law may better facilitate radical social change. At the very least, thinking about time in this way allows us to look again at the temporal lenses which we commonly associate with rights and ask what, or who, they benefit or privilege.

The temporal life of international human rights law, therefore, may be more important than we first thought. It is an everyday life, and one that is social and political in nature. We must continue as scholars, students and practitioners to think through the realities of time in this area, testing, expanding and challenging our understanding of time and the legal.  

Read the article…

This blog follows the publication of K McNeilly, ‘Are Rights Out of Time? International Human Rights Law, Temporality, and Radical Social Change’ (2019) 28(6) Social & Legal Studies 817-838

The article is free-to-view through the SAGE e-Pub reader at this link (correct on date of publication).

About the author

Kathryn McNeilly is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research intersects the areas of human rights theory and practice, feminist and gender scholarship, and critical legal theory. She is particularly interested in gendered and critical engagements with the theoretical underpinnings and everyday activity of human rights. Currently, Kathryn is undertaking a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (2019-2020) investigating issues of time and materiality in international human rights law monitoring.


[1] These latter two examples are explored in Emily Grabham, Brewing Legal Times: Things, Form, and the Enactment of Law (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

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