Prof. Dr. Marie-Bénédicte Dembour


I studied law at Université Libre de Bruxelles in the early 1980s and went on to study at the University of Oxford, where I gained a MPhil (1987) and a doctorate (1993) in social anthropology. This double disciplinary training has marked the development of my scholarship in a profound and most positive way. In short, I ‘cannot’ approach a legal topic in abstraction from what I have learnt as an anthropologist.

I undertook a Master in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford in 1985 with the support of a Wiener-Anspach Foundation’s scholarship. The following year a grant from the British Council allowed me to remain at Oxford and transfer to the two-year MPhil in Social Anthropology, for which I completed a dissertation on Islamic Law in the Sudan. Having been awarded a doctoral fellowship by the Belgian FNRS, the FNRS allowed me to transfer my doctoral studies from ULB to Oxford and from Law to Social Anthropology. My doctorate became an examination of the memory of colonialism in Belgium. It explored how the Belgian colonial officers who had worked in the so-called Territoriale – and who were thus in charge of administering law in the Congo at the lowest level – looked back at this experience. This study (which I turned into a book) has made me very aware of the importance of not studying Europe in isolation of the rest of the world and to adopt a post-colonial perspective when seeking to understand current global issues. This preoccupation is always with me even though it has only occasionally expressly surfaced in my subsequent studies.

My career developed in such a way that I did not remain an Africanist. As I was finishing my PhD, I was offered a Lectureship in Law at the University of Sussex in 1991. There I was asked to teach an interdisciplinary course on human rights. This set me on a course where human rights became my principal area of expertise. I started to delve into case law of the European Court of Human Rights at the European University Institute where I was a Jean Monnet Fellow in 1996. This subsequently incited me to apply to a Leverhulme Research Fellowship in order to explore paradoxes in human rights. This led to a second monograph, Who Believes in Human Rights?, which uses case law of the ECtHR in order to explore how deep, perennial critiques of human rights – inspired by Marxism, utilitarianism, realism, cultural relativism and feminism – cannot but manifest themselves in the way we think and practice human rights. This book is too legally orientated for having been written by a non-lawyer; at the same time, only someone asking legally very unconventional questions about law could have written it. It was published by Cambridge University Press in 2006 and remains regularly referenced today.

The book’s penultimate chapter noted that there is no agreed-upon conception of human rights which could be said to exist either in academia or in society. This chapter distinguished between four broad perspectives and proposed a ‘four-school model’. This latter model I reformulated in a more streamlined way in an article which appeared in Human Rights Quarterly in 2010. This immediately became one of the most downloaded articles of this top-ranking journal. The model I devised was empirically constructed through an inductive analysis of a wide range of scholarly texts (rather than being approached as a conceptual exercise). It posits that human rights are mainly approached as either given, or agreed upon, or fought for, or talked about. It serves as an introduction of human rights in may courses throughout the world.

In 2009, I was awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship to work on the six-decade history of the migrant case law of the European Court of Human Rights, a study which I then broadened in order also to encompass the twenty-five years of migrant case law of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This led to the award-winning book When Humans Become Migrants, which came out of Oxford University Press in 2015, and whose main ideas I have presented in a series of 30 short podcasts.

I moved to the University of Brighton in 2013, where I joined the Law Subject Group at the Brighton Business School, University of Brighton. I took this opportunity to extend my expertise to the field of human rights and business, creating a course on this subject as well as editing a special issue of the London Review of International Law on ‘trade plus’. 

In 2019, I was awarded an ERC advanced grant to lead a research programme on ‘DISSECT: Evidence in International Human Rights Law’ and I joined the Human Rights Centre at Ghent University. As such, I am leading a research team of about 10 researchers. A number of research projects are being conducted which address either the evidentiary system of a particular institution (respectively the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, the UN human rights treaty bodies) or the evidentiary challenges that arise in a particular constellation of cases (such as climate change litigation, claims by or on behalf of Indigenous Communities, or relying on new technologies such as digital open sources). In 2023, I edited a special issue entitled ‘The Evidentiary System of the European Court of Human Rights in Critical Perspective’ in the European Convention Law Review, to which I contributed an article ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt at its Worst but also at its Potential Best: Dissecting Ireland v the United Kingdom’s No-Torture Finding’.

The distinguishing feature of my scholarship is the way I marry legal skills with anthropological reflection. I have explained how I do this in a chapter published in 2020, which insists on the empirical and holistic character of the anthropological method and identifies it as involving 4 mottos, which demand of the anthropologist that s/he: 1) establishes how the small nitty-gritty stuff of social life connects with the big picture; 2) pays attention to the gap between theory and practice; 3) is aware of power relationships and their framing and silencing effects; 4) does not stop at the surface level but always digs deeper in its examination of social reality.

5 major achievements (publications or otherwise)

  • Edited a special issue on ‘The Evidentiary System of the European Court of Human Rights in Critical Perspective’, including an article by me entitled ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt at its Worst but also at its Potential Best: Dissecting Ireland v the United Kingdom’s No-Torture Finding’, for the European Convention of Human Rights Law Review (2023.
  • Developed a ‘dissecting method of analysis’, which was part of the programme of the ‘Research Methods for Fundamental Rights’ course dispensed by the Hertie School in 2022 and 2023.
  • Awarded in March 2019 ERC Advanced Grant 18-834044 for a project entitled ‘DISSECT: Evidence in International Human Rights Adjudication, which started on 1 October 2020.
  • Authored 500-page monograph When Humans Become Migrants: Study of the European Court of Human Rights with an Inter-American Counterpoint (Oxford University Press, 2015). The monograph was awarded (jointly) the 2016 Odysseus prize for outstanding academic research on European Immigration and Asylum Law.
  • Authored ‘What are Human Rights? Four Schools of Thought’ in the leading Human Rights Quarterly journal (2010). This article has been among HRQ’s top (1, 3 or 10) most-downloaded articles since publication. Current Google Scholars citations for this article: 242. (Total number of Google Scholar Citations for M-B Dembour: 2063; since 2015: 865).