Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

The Riddle of Human Rights

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

The Riddle of Human Rights

Article excerpt

Gary Teeple, The Riddle of Human Rights (Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press, 2004), 286pp. Cloth. ISBN 1-5519-3041-2. Paper. $26.95. ISBN 1-5519-3039-0.

This book is a Marxist critique of the rule of law, as represented by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The 'riddle of human rights' of the title has to do with why such rights are considered inherent and absolute and yet violated everywhere (p. 6). The answer to the riddle is that 'these rights are not what they are claimed to be; like all sets of rights, they are historically specific and reflective of the contradictions of the period; and therefore they are always a matter of contestation. They are called "human" because the same abstract rights are declared to belong to all humans, albeit as solitary, competing individuals whose interrelations are based on contract. . . . This answer can only be fully appreciated at the end of the era in which human rights were given their fullest expression, the era of the development of capital in its national forms' (p. 160). Such civil and political rights were promoted after World War II in the form of the UDHR to enhance the legitimacy of capitalism, to help secure capitalist relations in the defeated nations, to counter socialism, and to retain the post-colonial nations within the emergent global capitalist system (p. 19).

The historically relative nature of human rights and their ideological function are the core tenets of the book, which is fleshed out by a consideration of the contradiction between civil and political rights, on the one hand, and social rights, on the other; by discussion of rights outside capitalist relations (rights in 'socialist' countries, Aboriginal rights, Islamisation and human rights); by a critique of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International; and by an analysis of globalisation and the future destiny of human rights, including the meaning of September 11. …

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