Making human rights work globally. By Anthony WOODIWISS. London, Glasshouse Press, 2003. xii + 145 pp. Bibliography, index. ISBN 1-90438-508-7.
Ever heard of the sociology of human rights? If not, this thought-provoking little book will bring enlightenment and, to readers with a particular interest in labour rights, a whole lot besides. Workers' rights are indeed the focus of the author's analysis, because work is both "the defining aspect of many people's lives and a central concern of sociology". The principal aims of his study are: (a) to identify those aspects of established human rights practice that make the global enforcement of labour-related human rights so problematic; and (b) to propose practical solutions to the problems thus identified.
In order to break out of the debate's routine polarization between universalism and relativism, Woodiwiss stresses the need to see human rights as means rather than ends. To do so, he argues, brings "an intellectually liberatory realisation in that it provides the key with which the human rights box may be sociologically unlocked". The significance of this proposition lies largely in the historically antagonistic relationship between civil and political rights, and their association with liberalism, on the one hand, and economic and social rights, and their association with socialism, on the other.
Now, with globalization and the demise of the former communist block, the debate has shifted from East-West to North-South with a strong bias towards an American conception of justiciable rights based on liberties. But "only the United States has a labour rights system whose critical premise is a 'liberty', whilst there are not only wholly justiciable, but also, in other contexts, far more effective systems that have been democratically approved" (the examples the author cites include Australia, France, Japan and Sweden). Besides, in a "northern" economy where employers possess some autonomy and labour is free to attempt to take advantage of this, a labour law system configured in terms of liberties "may be sufficient to allow labour to secure some redress of the inequalities that are intrinsic to capitalist relations of production", but this does not work in "southern" economies where much local capital is subordinate to transnational capital. …