Human Rights, Human Remains

Dr Claire Moon from the LSE Centre for Human Rights was our first Performance and Politics international (PPi) Distinguished Speaker of the new session. Her provocative talk explored whether the dead have human rights. After taking us through the history of legal humanitarianism, transitions from conflict or to democracy, and the role of science, she argued that human remains could best be understood as ‘boundary objects’: objects that were seen in multiple ways by different groups: lawyers, politicians, forensics specialists and relatives.

She then examined what those involved in the work that follows death see themselves as doing. Death work is a practice that restores social order, or ‘domains the dead’, bringing them back from the abject in Julia Kristeva’s words, or restoring the dead as ‘matter in place’, to use Mary Douglas’s terminology.

Whether the dead have human rights is, for Moon, not a philosophical question, but rather one that can be examined by looking at practices: human rights exist because people believe they exist, so we should look at actions that confer rights on the dead, such as legal principles and forensic protocols. A fascinating seminar the following day unpacked some of these themes and drew out connections with theatricality and performance.

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