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Marie-Benedicte Dembour

Prof, Professor of Law and Anthropology

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Personal profile

Research interests

I am interested in everything which connects to the anthropology of law. Within this large field, my particular area of expertise is international human rights law. 

The following questions are at the core of my research: 

What are human rights?

Contrary to what might be thought, human rights is not an obvious concept. Different people hold different views as to what they are/should be. I have devised a model which classifies human rights’ conceptions into four broad schools. The model proposes that natural scholars tend to approach human rights as a given; deliberative scholars, as principles of governance that need to be agreed; protest scholars, as minimal standards emerging from social struggles; and discourse scholars, as a ‘double talk’ phenomenon that promotes values often practiced in the breach. 

How far does human rights protection reach? Where does it stop?

I have approached these questions from various angles. My book Who Believes in Human Rights?examined how classical critiques of human rights (realism, utilitarianism, Marxism, feminism and cultural relativism) manifest themselves in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It shows that the ECtHR cannot but confront the dilemmas and contradictions these critiques highlight. My latest monograph, When Humans Become Migrants, reveals how the ECtHR was never especially pro-active at defending migrants’ rights. It contrasts ‘the Strasbourg reversal’, which puts the principle of state sovereignty and border controls before human rights, to the pro-human approach adopted by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 

Where does the truth of human rights lay? 

This is also a multi-faceted question. I am especially interested in exploring the evidentiary regimes of different international human rights adjudicatory bodies: how and when are facts considered to be established and how does the judge navigate factual uncertainty? These are questions which seem to me to be particularly important in our ‘post-truth’ era. 

Scholarly biography

I studied law as an undergraduate at the Free University of Brussels (the French-speaking ULB) at a time when getting a law degree in Belgium took five years. My plans to become a law practitioner got diverted as I was awarded a scholarship to study social anthropology at the University of Oxford. My arrival at St John's College, Oxford, was so enchanting that my first endeavour was to seek to turn the nine months I was expected to spend there into a two-year MPhil. This completed, I carried on and enrolled for the DPhil in Social Anthropology, benefiting from the extraordinary luck of having the Belgian Research Foundation (FNRS) agreeing to fund my studies at the University of Oxford for four years. When this grant was about to run out, I was offered a Lectureship in Law at the University of Sussex. There I was invited to teach an interdisciplinary module on human rights. This set me on a course of research I was never to abandon, probably because it gave me the opportunity to marry so many of my interests - a passion for social justice, legal skills, and anthropological reflection. I remained at the University of Sussex until 2013, when I 'crossed the road' and joined the Brighton Business School at the University of Brighton. There new opportunities arose, including developing a module on 'human rights and business'.

Approach to teaching

My research informs my teaching, and my teaching informs my research. What I am looking at in class is to develop the ability of my students to think critically. This requires creating a congenial attitude where every comment and question is valued for the opportunity it offers to reflect upon what we know, what we do not know, and how we should approach the issues we are seeking to understand and debate. This is as much true at undergraduate as at graduate level. Having fun in class is important, as is positively encouraging students to pursue their own interests outside the class room. For example, in my 'Human Rights and Business' module, each student keeps a weekly blog (personal to them) where they summarise and comment each week upon one media item which tackles directly or indirectly an issue having to do with human rights and business.


  • K Law (General)
  • Human Rights
  • Migration
  • Ethnographies of law

Fingerprint Fingerprint is based on mining the text of the person's scientific documents to create an index of weighted terms, which defines the key subjects of each individual researcher.

human rights Social Sciences
anthropology Social Sciences
university teacher Social Sciences
migrant Social Sciences
Law Social Sciences
school Social Sciences
school model Social Sciences
case law Social Sciences

Network Recent external collaboration on country level. Dive into details by clicking on the dots.

Research Output 2010 2018

Free trade, protectionism, neoliberalism: tensions and continuities

Dembour, M-B. & Stammers, N. 9 Oct 2018 6, 2, p. 169–188

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Introduction: Trade +

Dembour, M-B. & Stammers, N. 9 Oct 2018 6, 2, p. 163–168

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

The Rituals of Human Rights

Authers, B., Charlesworth, H., Dembour, M-B. & Larking, E. 1 Jan 2018 9, 1

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

human rights
case law
human being
historical analysis

Gaygusuz revisited: the limits of the European Court of Human Rights' equality agenda

Dembour, M-B. 12 Dec 2012 12, 4, p. 689-721 33 p.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle