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Future-proofing human rights. Developing thicker forms of accountability

Project overview

Human rights are increasingly described as in crisis. One reason for this is that current accountability mechanisms cannot adequately deal with intricate and multilayered human rights violations that occur in rapidly changing and vastly complex social contexts. Thus, if human rights are to continue to offer a widely accepted framework for thinking about (social) justice, we urgently need to reconstruct the very notion of accountability on which it is pinned, so that better protection is offered. This project revisits the questions of what counts as a human rights violation, who holds human rights duties and how to actually deliver human rights accountability, in the context of pressing and complex challenges. Harnessing the legal, sociological, anthropological and criminological expertise of the consortium’s members, it finds resources and strategies for thicker human rights accountability within human rights law, from other domains of law, and beyond the legal realm. The identification of a variety of avenues for achieving better human rights protection will provide the basis for a thicker conceptualization of the notion of (human rights) accountability.


In spite of a relatively robust legal framework there is a continued reality of human rights violations and rather low degrees of accountability. Our aim is therefore to strengthen human rights law by identifying means or mechanisms that ensure a thicker form of accountability. This project proposes to further develop the concept of accountability so that it can face up to current social challenges, such as COVID-19, corporate abuse or surveillance dilemmas. Our particular concern is with the disconnect between the formal legal system and the lived experiences of those who suffer harms that could logically be – but are not yet – understood as a human rights violation.

Our overarching research question is: How can thicker accountability for human rights violations be achieved, so as to ensure better human rights protection in line with the everyday experience of rights holders? This question breaks down into three sub-questions:

1. What counts/should count, as a human rights violation, i.e. what types of substantive wrongs (do not) trigger accountability in practice?
2. Who can/should be held accountable (i.e. who is a duty-bearer), but now slips through the net?
3. How can the human rights framework be altered to accommodate this, i.e. what are good practices?

Research components

The project is organized into three tracks, structured around the three places where we look for thicker accountability and which go from a more classical legal doctrinal analysis in track 1 to a more multidisciplinary analysis in track 3. Each track is further divided into work packages (WPs). A fourth track integrates the research findings to examine how a thicker kind of accountability for human rights can be achieved across the various realms we examined.

The first three tracks take a descriptive approach to the question of what counts as a human rights violation (RQ1), who can be held accountable (RQ2), and what best practices are (RQ3), and look for answers in human rights law itself (track 1), around it (track 2), and beyond the legal realm (track 3). Track 4 takes a helicopter view: it will first engage in a further conceptual analysis of accountability on the basis of existing materials, and will then adopt a user perspective as an analytical lens to integrate the insights from tracks 1-3, and to build on these insights to formulate an overarching answer to the three sub questions (what, who, how), thereby answering the central question of How can thicker accountability for human rights violations be achieved, so as to ensure better human rights protection?

This project seeks to arrive at a conceptualization of accountability that is more reflective of rightsholders’ lived experiences of injustice.

More information?

For more information about the project and our partners (UAntwerp, UHasselt and VUB), download our information sheet here.

Co-principal investigators

Prof. Dr. Marie-Bénédicte Dembour

Prof. Dr. Stijn Smet

Prof. Dr. Wouter Vandenhole

Prof. Dr. Paul de Hert

Dr. Rosamunde van Brakel

Project Lead
Justice Visions Researchers