By Jim Ife, Altitude, Volume 4, Review 2, 2004.
The field of human rights is now a large one in the academic publishing world. Like the present volume, most of the recent editions address the issues of universality and cross-cultural dialogue, especially within the context of globalisation. Indeed, one criticism I would make of the human rights literature is that because it has concentrated so much on this (admittedly very important) area, it has dealt inadequately with other significant theoretical issues. I would welcome more focus on, for example, the relationship between rights and responsibilities, rather than additions to the already substantial literature on cultural issues and universalism. Does this collection, then, have anything new to say?
The other question raised by this book, on reading the list of contributors, is how can a collection where all the authors are based in the USA (though they do have differing cultural backgrounds) possibly reflect the multiplicity of voices one would ideally wish for in a book on this topic. Is it just another exercise in so-called ‘American academic imperialism’, where even topics such as universalism, cultural difference and international human rights are analysed from a largely American perspective for the benefit of the (presumably grateful) rest of the world?
These were the (perhaps cynical) questions with which I approached Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalisation, and I am pleased to say that I was reassured on both counts. This collection does have some important things to say, and it does reach beyond a specifically American worldview.
The two key themes of the collection are indicated in the title of the book. The idea of human rights as constructed is important throughout the volume, and a welcome change from the surprising number of writers who seem to regard human rights in a more positivistic sense. Thus the focus is more on who does the constructing, how rights are constructed, and how they are negotiated when conflicts (often culturally determined) arise, than on human rights as existing naturally in some way, or as handed down in tablets of stone from the holy mountain of the UN. This leads to a particular concern with dialogue as providing a model for the construction and reconstruction of human rights: the emphasis is on human rights as dynamic, diverse and an arena for debate.
The other key theme is globalisation. It is clear that any discussion of human rights in a culturally diverse context must take account not only of differences between nation states and between traditional cultures, but also the forces of globalisation that render many of these differences less relevant (ironically at the very time that their significance is being rediscovered). The treatment of globalisation in the introduction – and this is carried forward in some of the subsequent chapters, most notably the chapters in Part II – is more sophisticated and analytical than one often finds in works of this type.
These two themes, of construction and globalisation, give the book its shape, and provide a coherence which is often missing in edited collections. This does not mean to say that all the authors agree with each other. The emphasis on dialogue, however, gives a constructive framing to these differences.
The book is divided into three parts. The volume begins with a substantial introduction, and ends with a brief conclusion, each of which is written jointly by the four editors. The introduction is particularly valuable, identifying important themes to be dealt with in subsequent chapters, and is in itself a useful reference point for much of the discussion. I did wish for a more substantial conclusion, however. Between the introduction and the conclusion are twelve chapters by different authors, grouped into three parts, each of four chapters. Part I is ‘The Struggle to Control the Human Rights Regime’, Part II is ‘The Dynamics and Counter-Dynamics of Globalisation’, and Part III is ‘Setting the Terms of Debate: Pursuing Global Consensus’. The four chapters in Part I outline a number of major issues, including gender, environment and intellectual property, as well as the familiar issues of cultural difference, universalism and the crisis of the state. The chapters in Part II discuss particular cultural contexts, though of the four chapters, two deal with China and a third with Hong Kong; one would ideally have wished for a broader range of cultural contexts. The other chapter discusses Iran, but the section as a whole could have benefited from more diversity. Part III was for me the best part of the book: four chapters that, from different perspectives, seek to look forward. Joanne Bauer’s and Charles Lockhart’s chapters identify challenges and obstacles, the latter being the more pessimistic (or at least sceptical) in identifying systemic obstacles embedded in different national and cultural traditions and histories, and how these lead to differing and competing understandings of the human rights agenda. The next two chapters, however, are more hopeful, and end the book on an optimistic note. Chenyang Li’s chapter discusses the nature of moral argument and moral persuasion as the central task of promoting human rights, while the final chapter by John Downey, written from a theological perspective, seeks to find a common starting point for human rights in the experience of and reaction to human suffering.
Overall, this book is a useful addition to human rights literature, and its consistent emphasis on the construction of rights, and the context of globalisation, give it a particular relevance and coherence that similar collections often lack.