Human rights entered the language and practice of humanitarian aid in the mid-1990s, and since then they have worked in parallel, complemented or competed with traditional frameworks ordering humanitarianism, including humanitarian principles, refugee law, and inter-agency standards. This article positions the study of rights within a sociology of praxis. It starts from a premise that interpretation and realisation of international norms depends on actors’ social negotiation. We seek to contribute to the sociology of rights with insights from legal pluralism and to analyse human rights as a semi-autonomous field in a multiplicity of normative frameworks. Based on cumulative research into humanitarian aid in disaster response, refugee care and protracted crises, the article explores how humanitarian agencies evoke different normative frameworks to legitimate their presence and programmes. How aid is shaped through the ‘rights speak’ of aid workers and recipients alike is illuminated by cases of programmes promoting women’s rights against sexual abuse from Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).