Marie-Bénédicte Dembour - DISSECT

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Marie-Bénédicte Dembour is a full professor at the Faculty of Law and Criminology of Ghent University and a member of the Human Rights Centre at Ghent University.

She received her undergraduate education at the Université Libre de Bruxelles where she took the five-year licence law degree (1980-1985) as well as the teaching diploma in law (1983-1985). She studied social anthropology at the University of Oxford. There she completed the MPhil in 1987 and the DPhil in 1993. In 1991, she became a Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex, before being awarded a Chair Law and Anthropology in 2007. In 2013, she moved to the University of Brighton, where she stayed until she joined Ghent University in 2019.

Her scholarship has been deeply influenced by her double training in law and social anthropology. Unable to continue to pursue her interest in memories of colonialism after her doctorate, she developed instead a unique expertise in, and approach to, human rights studies. She asks legally unconventional questions of and about international human rights law. One of her hallmarks has become a legal-anthropological method of ‘dissecting’ human rights judicial cases.  

She co-edited the celebrated volume Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives (2001). Her book Who Believes in Human Rights? (2006) offered a commentary on the European Convention on Human Rights as well as a theoretical reflection on the concept of human rights, shown to be differently conceptualised by four ‘schools' of human rights. An award-winning monograph When Humans Become Migrants (2015) followed, which demonstrates and critiques the timidity of the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. Her current ERC advanced grant project, dissecting the way international human rights courts use evidence, is a natural progression from her previous work.

Her research has been supported by multiple institutions and she has been invited to talk, teach and participate in scientific committees all over the world.

Description of the project

DISSECT: Evidence in International Human Rights Adjudication

Evidence is at the heart of adjudication, and adjudication at the heart of the international protection of human rights. Yet evidence in international human rights (IHR) adjudication has never been comprehensively studied. Benefiting from the support of highest-level figures in the relevant institutions, DISSECT is a ground-breaking research programme which will capture the evidentiary regimes in place in the world’s three regional human rights courts and in UN human rights quasi-judicial bodies.

First, DISSECT will examine from a purely legal perspective the formal and informal rules and practices (‘regime’) which govern the treatment of evidence in IHR adjudication – burden and standard of proof and evidence admissibility, collection, submission, assessment and scope. It will do so across institutions, types of complaints and time.

Second, it will examine the political underpinnings and uses of the IHR evidentiary regime, including dismissals of politically sensitive complaints on the pretext that they are not sufficiently evidenced by the victim.

Third, it will identify ‘best’ and ‘worst’ practices and generate specific recommendations for use in IHR adjudication.

Fourth, it will develop new insights on evidence, truth and power and thus create a new strand in Critical Legal Studies.

These ambitious aims will be achieved by harnessing not only legal doctrinal methods of research but also, and crucially, the PI’s rare double training as a lawyer and an anthropologist. This will allow the IHR evidentiary regime to be studied as a social phenomenon (rather than merely ‘in context’). DISSECT is urgently needed by victims of human rights abuse who seek international redress without knowing exactly what evidence is required of them, as well as by IHR adjudicatory bodies at risk of losing their legitimacy if they cannot demonstrate that they are acting logically, consistently and fairly. Current concerns over ‘truth decay’ make it particularly timely.


PI  Marie-Bénédicte Dembour


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