Human rights in times of crises: Resistance and concrete utopias

Event series 2021

Berlin – Conversations – Human rights

Human rights are a concrete utopia worth defending, but what does this entail during times of profound, global transition? Can we use today’s unprecedented, multiple crises as an opportunity? And what alliances and strategies do we need to effectively include decolonial, feminist and environmental perspectives?

Our series of seven online events between May and November 2021, funded by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, provided a public platform for conversations between partners and experts from around the world. With the participants, we discussed how the current economic, pandemic and ecological crises can be reconceived to generate momentum in forging new approaches toward creating change. The central premise of these exchanges is that the unprecedented transitions we are experiencing also provide the chance to rethink strategies, alliances and ways forward.


The event series Human rights in times of crises focused on different key topics, including climate change, feminism, and postcolonial struggles. The discussions were led by well-known guests, among them Katharina Pistor, Luisa Neubauer, Vince Warren and Alejandra Ancheita, with the overarching question of how to reshape our alliances within global human rights struggles. All videos are available online.


The event series is both deeply inspired and co-led by our community of partners worldwide – people and movements that have never stopped questioning the establishment, reclaiming the streets, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. The events are framed around ECCHR General Secretary Wolfgang Kaleck’s 2021 book The concrete utopia of human rights: A look back into the future (published in German by S. Fischer).

Human rights law is without question a relevant tool for resisting and upsetting structural injustices, but it also carries within it the potential for constructive change. The exceptional body of principles enshrined in law gives us a normative basis, and thereby a recognized right, to reclaim more of what is due. It also allows human rights actors – activists, artists and lawyers – to pragmatically formulate our vision to advance toward a concrete utopia of human rights for all.


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More on the individual events from the series Human rights in times of crises:

Alejandra Ancheita (lawyer, founder of ProDESC), Joshua Castellino (executive director, Minority Rights Group International) and Wolfgang Kaleck (ECCHR general secretary) kicked off the event series. On the basis of Kaleck’s book The concrete utopia of human rights: A look back into the future (in German, S. Fischer publishers), our guests discussed how, when faced with a climate crisis, a pandemic, deeply unequal economic systems, and authoritarianism, human rights activists can no longer continue with business-as-usual. These unprecedented global transitions provide a chance to develop new strategies and ways forward, as well as reclaim human rights and their potential for change.

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Katharina Pistor (author, Columbia Law School) spoke with Guillermo Torres (lawyer, ProDESC), Johan Horst (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Miriam Saage-Maaß (ECCHR program director Business and Human Rights) about how corporate power and law are intertwined. Law not only organizes and secures economic profits; it is also a crucial factor in creating wealth. Our guests explored how economic and financial law are important elements in establishing corporate power, as well as how they can also be used to provide legal and political avenues for restricting the growth of corporate wealth and power. Can human rights, especially economic and social rights, play a role in insuring that our societies become more equitable?

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César Rodríguez-Garavito (New York University), Arpitha Kodiveri (European University Institute), Luisa Neubauer (Fridays for Future) and Miriam Saage-Maaß (ECCHR Business and Human Rights program director) discussed the potentials of human rights litigation in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation.

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With Meena Jagannath (Movement Law Lab), Achal Prabhala (AccessIBSA), Andreas Wulf (medico international) and Miriam Saage-Maaß (ECCHR), as well as input from the audience, this discussion focused on what changes are necessary to stop medicines and vaccines from being treated as commodities and, instead, to grant them the status of common goods. We also explored what role the global health rights movement can play when up against the interests of “big pharma.”

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From widespread surveillance, torture and disappearances to the increased criminalization of protest and restrictive rules on public association, we are unquestionably witnessing a global pushback against civic spaces. With our guests Ben Hayes, co-author of Rethinking civic space in an age of intersectional crises: a briefing for funders (2020), Isha Khandelwal, a human rights lawyer from India, and Wolfgang Kaleck (ECCHR general secretary), we discussed concrete visions for organized forms of resistance.

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Contemporary feminist movements across the globe have in recent years developed significantly in ways that speak to their revolutionary potential – including within authoritarian contexts. Marta Dillon (journalist, author and lesbian-feminist activist) spoke with Magdalena Baran-Szoltys (researcher and co-author Über Forderungen. Wie feministischer Aktivismus gelingt) on whether feminism should ultimately imply a global indictment of capitalism. The discussion was moderated by Wolfgang Kaleck, ECCHR general secretary.

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Colonialism continues to shape our current social, economic, and political world order to a substantial degree. In this last event in our series, Sima Luipert (Nama Traditional Leaders Association), Vince Warren (Center for Constitutional Rights) and Meena Jagannath (Movement Law Lab), came together to bridge different aspects of a larger struggle. The discussion encompassed reparations claims for German colonial crimes in Namibia, the legacy of slavery, unfinished decolonization, as well as the vibrant Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. The conversation was moderated by Wolfgang Kaleck, ECCHR general secretary.

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Documents (1)


Glossary (1)


Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 sets out rights to be enjoyed by every person, regardless of sex, religion, or where they are from.

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