Following Richard Rorty's lead, this article does not foreground debates on human rights to the exclusion of the literary; instead, it examines bodies of literature that articulate and express these concerns about human rights, sometimes explicitly, but more often by implication. It is within this context that we argue that a new sub-genre of writing can be discerned and shaped, one we label ‘literatures of captivity’. This article considers the ways in which these narratives manifestly open a discursive space that both allows and enables the exploration of what, exactly, constitutes human rights. This exploration of the violation of human rights, in a manner not so freely available in state-sponsored discourse (the law), is also disseminated and packaged in ways that reach and influence a considerably wider readership or audience than codified statutes. We suggest that this is especially pertinent to life writings, focusing in particular upon case studies drawn from Japanese American internment narratives and memoirs of northern Korean labour camps.