Human rights are an increasingly common language of advocacy for civil society organisations, but are these groups using the same words to mean different things? Although the spread of human rights has been well examined, little attention has been paid to the content of these rights as understood by civil society actors in diverse settings. Focusing on this gap in the literature, this paper examines how personnel in human rights-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Botswana and neighbouring South Africa perceive human rights. Drawing on interview-based case studies of two human rights-based organisations operating at the national level, I analyse how activists draw on domestic context to interpret human rights. This paper argues that personnel in these NGOs understand and articulate human rights in distinct ways that are shaped by and responsive to the contexts in which they live and work. Emerging from a more homogenous consensus-based culture, Botswana respondents are more likely to integrate cultural concepts, emphasise inclusion and understand human rights as timeless and innate. Reflecting South Africa’s progressive constitution, unequal society and a history of struggle, South African respondents highlight contrast, agency, change over time and the law.
Drafts of this paper were presented at the Prairie Political Science Association Conference, the American Political Science Association Conference, the Canadian Political Science Association, the International Studies Association Conference and the International Political Science Association Conference. A related paper was presented at the Global Rights and Democracy workshop at UBC (a summary of which was subsequently featured as a blog post on Open Global Rights).