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Troubling Universalized Human Rights: The Complexities of Identity and Intersectionality

by Malia Lee Womack

One hundred ninety-three countries are members to the United Nations. A core function of the intergovernmental organization is to produce human rights treaties. The multilateral agreements define humanity and its needs through a universalizing approach that deduces subjectivity/individuality and homogenizes humans into shared identities. Some of the conventions are intended to protect all humans and others are designed to protect group rights. Each multilateral agreement produces a narrative about what it means to be human or a member of a particular human group. However, the universalized identity defined in each treaty is incomprehensive and fragmented. Universalization divides human needs along rigid lines. This approach creates an understanding of victimhood that assumes people experience human rights violations in the same way. Attention to intersectionality is majorly lacking in the homogenizing approach; a more complex understanding of identity is necessary. This manuscript argues for increased attention in human rights to intersectionality and its complexness, in order to address the intricate needs of diverse humans (especially those who are most subjugated). This paper also argues for a restructuring of the human rights system to allow oppressed groups agency to define their needs, design their rights, and oversee implementation of the provisions. Moving forward theories of rights practices must explore what types of legal frameworks and institutions are best equipped to meet the needs of all humans. Is it better to use a universal framework or a plurality of frameworks? Can universalism be redesigned to comprehensively address intersectionality and the complexities of identity, and if so, how should this design be constructed? What design will provide subjugated groups agency to define their needs and be core overseers of their rights? Human rights are not static and profound attention to intersectionality and complex personhoods can assure rights protect people who are otherwise marginalized.

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