Severyns Ravenholt Talk: Citizen’s Right, Fundamental Right, Human Right, or Privilege? Human Rights and the German Movement Against Tuition Fees

Jonathan C. Beck, UW Ph.D Candidate
Friday, February 14, 2020 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Gowen Hall 1A, The Olson Room

Why do actors employ international human rights law in domestic policy disputes, and to what effect? Can international human rights law play an important role in cases where its direct application and justiciability by domestic courts is questionable?This study builds on sociolegal theoretical frameworks emphasizing discursive opportunity structures and the vernacularization of human rights, placing this literature into conversation and these processes into different steps. To do so, it considers these questions in the area of socioeconomic rights by examiningthe formal and informal mobilization of human rights law by the German social movement against tuition fees.I draw on extensive content analysis of movement and political party documents, court decisions, and news reports, as well as semi-structured interviews and participant observation. Whereas socioeconomic human rights have historically lagged in their implementation and enforceability, and some scholars worry about the potential negative impacts of legal strategies on movement goals, I find that activists in Germanywere not naïve about the potential efficacy of human rights. While activists privately and publicly expressed belief in education as a fundamental and human right, they were also skeptical that such an “emotional argument” would win over external audiences and well aware that domestic courts were unlikely to adopt their broad interpretation. Rather, human rights mobilization served two interconnected purposes: 1. It aided internal movement building by helping to expandthe scope of movement demands, which might otherwise have been too limited given extant educational inequality in the country; and 2. Human rights-based actions helped generate media coverage, which in concert with other activities made possible broader public pressure on policymakers.