Fundamental political conflicts and the impact of human rights. The case of the Amazon region.

In 2011 the construction of the Belo Monte dam started at the Xingu river to set up one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric stations. The parties involved are a consortium of state and private enterprises, among them many international companies. Vast areas of rainforest have already been destroyed and farmland has been flooded and some ten thousand people, among them many members of the indigenous population, are being relocated. Since court decisions and legal regulations intended to protect the indigenous population have been systematically disregarded, the case has been presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington; in response the Brazilian government is threatening to stop its contribution to the financing of the commission.

Taking it’s point of departure from the case of Belo Monte, the present project, set up to run for a minimum of two years, investigates the impact of appealing to human rights and to the law in general in fundamental political conflicts: namely, does appealing to human rights or a rights system in general resolve or aggravate such conflicts? How are we to understand the function of legal mechanisms in conflict resolution in weak states? What is the normative potential of human rights and how can they be justified? The confrontation of two fundamentally different assessments of the impact of human rights and of the law in general – namely, to regard them either as fostering peace or as aggravating conflicts – is one of the main dividing lines in current philosophical, political and judicial research. Yet these assessments are decisive for how one answers questions of the primacy of politics or the law; of the necessity of national or transnational constitutionalism; and of the role the development of international law could play in forming a legitimate global order. In order to adequately address these questions in their political dimension, the current project seeks to take an open and unbiased look at those conflicts in which there is an appeal to human rights and those in which such an appeal is not made. In order to provoke or make possible an actual „irritation“ of the theoretical discourse, the first phase of the project will include an ideal-typical systematization of the aforementioned competing hypotheses which will then be confronted with an examination of the specific structure and situation of the Belo Monte conflict and other similar conflicts. In a third step we intent to investigate to what extent the conflicts in the Amazon area can be regarded as paradigmatic cases for a theoretical and normative discussion about the impacts human rights and legal mechanisms have on the resolution of fundamental political conflicts. In linking explanative and normative accounts we aim at clarifying the relationship between claims in political and legal theory and thereby at providing important insights for questions of methodology. This open and unbiased examination of actual conflicts seeks to remedy a somewhat unsatisfying situation in theoretical discourse where empirical references are often made only to prove one’s own claims. Yet especially in states with precarious political and legal conditions, the decision whether to resolve conflicts by political or even violent means or to appeal to national or international legal principles and institutions is of the utmost importance for those states’ future political and legal development. Thus, a clear understanding of the conditions under which the appeal to human rights helps to resolve or aggravates conflicts could give a set of criteria the parties involved could turn to.


Prof. Dr. Andreas Niederberger  info

Dr. Eva Weiler info

Johanna Gördemann, M.A. info


In cooperation with:

Prof. Dr. Paula Arruda

Tobias Debiel info

Christian Scheper info

Christine Unrau info


Project duration: 2015-2017


A PROBRAL-Projekt (DAAD/Capes)