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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 connected 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? examines 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 must 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 lie? 

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 am a Professor of Law and Anthropology since 2007.

I studied law as an undergraduate at the Free University of Brussels (ULB). My plan to become a law practitioner was diverted in 1985 as I was awarded a Wiener-Anspach Scholarship to study social anthropology at the University of Oxford. There I gained my MPhil and then, with the support of a full grant from the Belgian Research Foundation (FNRS), my DPhil in Social Anthropology. 

In 1991, I was offered a Lectureship in Law at the University of Sussex. On arrival, I was asked to teach an interdisciplinary module on human rights. This set me on a course of research which, marrying my legal skills, anthropological reflection and passion for social justice, has defined my academic career.

A Jean Monnet Fellowship (1995) became an opportunity to start researching the European Court of Human Rights. This was pursued in earnest with a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (2002-04), which gave rise to the monograph Who Believes in Human Rights? A subsequent Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2009-12), complemented by a one-term personal invitation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, enabled me to write the award-winning book When Humans Become Migrants.

In 2013, I ‘crossed the road’ and joined the Brighton Business School at the University of Brighton. This pushed me to take my interests in new directions. For example, I created a module on ‘human rights and business’ and in 2016 I convened an international workshop on TTIP and trade agreements, whilst continuing to develop my previous interests. In 2014-15, I was a partner on the EU-funded research project entitled (in short) MinAs, which examined the treatment and rights of unaccompanied minors who seek asylum in Europe. 

My expertise and unique interdisciplinary approach are in high demand throughout the world. I addressed the World Congress of Constitutional Law at Seoul in 2018 and will be at the St Petersburg International Legal Forum in 2019. In February 2019, for the third year running, I will be a visiting professor at the University of Caen-Normandie. Other highlights include my regular participation in summer schools, including the Odysseus Summer School at the Free University of Brussels. I have been a member of doctoral juries in 8 different countries. 

I am on the editorial board of the Human Rights Law Review, the Journal of Immigration, Asylum and NationalityPublic Anthropology, and the Journal of Legal Anthropology. I belong to the ESRC's College of Experts and recently joined the expert panel (for Law) of the Flemish Research Foundation. I have been invited to review applications by the European Research Council and other research bodies. I was a member of Insight Grants Committee of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Social Anthropology Committee, 2013 and 2014). I have participated in diverse processes appointing academics at senior level in various countries.

I am a committed trade unionist and have been Chair of the University of Brighton's UCU Moulsecoomb branch since 2017.

Date: December 2018


  • 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
migrant Social Sciences
case law Social Sciences
sovereignty Social Sciences
privilege Social Sciences
remedies Social Sciences
deficit Social Sciences
school Social Sciences

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

Research Output 2010 2019

  • 5 Article
  • 2 Chapter
  • 1 Book - authored
  • 1 Conference contribution with ISSN or ISBN

The Migrant Case Law of the European Court of Human Rights: Critique and Way Forward

Dembour, M-B., Jan 2019, SSRN. 17 p.

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNConference contribution with ISSN or ISBNResearch

Open Access
case law

Free trade, protectionism, neoliberalism: tensions and continuities

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

Introduction: Trade +

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

The Rituals of Human Rights

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

Open Access

When Humans Become Migrants: Study of the European Court of Human Rights with an Inter-American Counterpoint

Dembour, M-B., 26 Mar 2015, Oxford, UK. 540 p.

Research output: Book/ReportBook - authoredResearch

human rights
case law
human being
historical analysis