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Human rights are not primarily technical-legal issues. While much research and debate has revolved around the legal nature of human rights, comparatively little attention has been offered to their political character. Human rights define basic norms, values and interests in human and social life, but they are, at the same time, always secured or denied in political and social contexts of power, and situations of competition over resources. This article reports on a research project that made detailed empirical analyses of how different forms of power constrain human rights activism in six different countries, and examines the construction of countervailing empowerment to challenge such power structures. It argues that more systematic analytical attention should be paid to power and political analysis of human rights in development contexts.