Are human rights a form of social control?

Silvia Falcetta and I have recently been thinking about the ways in which human rights law provides a mechanism for achieving forms of social control in contemporary societies. 

Although human rights law is not commonly thought of as a means by which to regulate individuals - on the contrary, human rights law is usually seen as a way that individuals resist regulation - we have examined a number of ways in which human rights law does underpin and produce social controls. 

We have drawn upon judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, and examined the execution of those judgments by the Council of Europe, to consider how human rights law contributes to patterns of contemporary social control. 

We have produced a working paper which shows how human rights law - by codifying abstract values and endorsing practices to realize those values – plays a significant role in shaping the control of individual or group behaviours designated as deviant or problematic in contemporary societies.

Here is the abstract of our working paper:

Social scientists have long used the concept of social control to consider the ways in which societies respond to individuals or groups regarded as deviant or problematic. Although it is generally recognized that law and its enforcement is a cornerstone of social control, there is very little research on how human rights law might fulfil a social control function. Through an examination of a purposive sample of cases adjudicated by the European Court of Human Rights, we show how human rights law can facilitate forms of upward, inward and downward social control in contemporary societies. Our overall conclusion is that human rights law enables, produces and shapes contemporary practices of social control, often with significant and far-reaching consequences.

The working paper can be found here: