THE HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS From Ancient Times to Globalization Micheline R. Ishay Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. x, 45opp, US$6o.oo cloth (ISBN 0-520-23496-0), US$24-95 paper (ISBN 0-520-23497-9)
In this comprehensive and sweeping history of human rights, Micheline R. Ishay embeds the developments in thinking about human rights over thousands of years in a review of the historical successes its proponents have had in realizing them. No one to my knowledge has undertaken such an ambitious effort. The breadth highlights the discovery of broad historical trends and allows the author to comment on key debates in the study of human rights.
I shay cleverly blends six arguments about controversies in the study of human rights with a largely chronological review of the major milestones in their application. She first corrects the mistaken modern secular notion that religion and human rights are antithetical. Indeed, what we know now as human rights have their unmistakable origins in all of the great religious traditions. In a lovely discussion, she addresses the contributions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, among others. It is the practice of religion, not theology, that deserves the blame for this feeling of mutual exclusiveness.
Her second claim is all the more interesting considering the first: she writes that the European contribution to the notion of human rights has been the strongest of all of the world's civilizations. This is a somewhat bold assertion, given the tendency among those concerned about human rights to note the frequent departures of western practice from its preaching, a fact that she does not shy away from. The western liberal tradition is often dwelt on to the neglect of socialist contributions to human rights thinking. Ishay's third claim is that notions of economic and social equality have been very significant in the development of modern human rights practice. The reaction and opposition to the pernicious effects of the Industrial Revolution were just as important as opposition to the ancien régime. This is probably the book's most important historical point, as the practice of Stalinist regimes and their concomitant human rights travesties have obscured the efforts particularly of social democratic parties in the west in promoting human rights, both before and after the second World War.
The fourth claim is more prescriptive than descriptive. By way of an exploration of the role that nationalism has played in the acceptance of the right of self-determination, Ishay draws the very wise conclusion that while the pursuit of the rights of cultural groups can be a powerful force for good, these groups must nevertheless be held to the standard of certain universal principles. …