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Research project: Advocating human rights under conditions of religious legal pluralism: the example of NGOs in Beirut, Lebanon

Sirin Knecht

In recent decades the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on human rights has increased exponentially. These NGOs are often financed by (mainstream) foreign donors and see it as their role to scrutinize and challenge state policies and agencies. Particularly in conflict regions and where the state does not seem to be able to regulate challenging political dynamics on its own, the NGOs appear as both independent and state-related actors when it comes to development aid engagement, social movements, accountability and other themes of social participation. NGOs are central actors in transnational legal processes, implementing and translating human rights into local contexts.

In the case of Lebanon, the number of human rights NGOs has grown tremendously in recent years. Against the backdrop of abiding civil war, a history of foreign occupation, and forced migration due to long-standing military conflicts in the region, the public and economic infrastructure has been weakened and is therefore dependent on foreign financial support. Moreover, emerging regional security concerns and the ever-increasing wave of migration incited by the ongoing Syrian civil war exacerbate the Lebanese state’s crisis of political power.

Sirin Knecht´s current research project investigates how the concept of human rights as an abstract universal idea is being received and reshaped in concrete claims made by people when they seek legal counselling from NGOs. Furthermore, she is investigating the role of NGOs as state actors and, at the same time, independent mediators advocating human rights at the local scale. Against this backdrop, the following overall research question emerges: How are specific notions of human rights incorporated into the Lebanese legal framework and implemented through a translation process carried out by NGOs in Lebanon? The study includes extensive ethnographic fieldwork as well as comparative analysis within the framework of a normative pluralism of state and non-state actors and social orders, where human rights are transformed into local contexts and where applied legal practice is taking place. Within this context, the project scrutinizes expert knowledge and focuses on both local grassroots initiatives and advocacy projects dealing with human rights issues.

The research project promotes an in-depth ethnographic analysis of institutional organization and makes a theoretical contribution to contemporary questions of expertise and advocacy in the field of NGOs and human rights.