Aryeh Neier The International Human Rights Movement: A History Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty
Each morning, after I've consumed my quota of coffee and browsed through the comforting paper-and-ink version of the local newspaper, I attend to the collection of electronic journals and related matter that has amassed overnight in my computer's inbox. There I find The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and about a dozen "alternative" Internet-based news and public affairs websites. In the mix are notices from another dozen advocacy groups urging me to sign a petition, make a donation or merely learn about an alleged calumny on the part of the authorities or an impending disaster (animal, vegetable, mineral or meteorological-any or all of which have been ignored, marginalized or rationalized by the mainstream print and broadcast media. Among these groups are Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI), which are probably the most easily identified and influential non-governmental organizations engaged in the promotion of human rights or, more often, the struggle against violations of human rights. They operate world-wide and subject offending nations (which are almost all of them) to critical scrutiny. The stories they tell are compelling. The issues they raise are often awkward and sometimes embarrassing (especially to the leaders of liberal democracies who prefer to believe that human rights abuses occur somewhere else). They are also tricky because they rely on a fundamental concept that is ill-defined, philosophically problematic and practically difficult to assess and address.
Human rights are strange conceptual beasts. There is, for example, no consensus on what they are. Some people think that they are absolute moral imperatives; some think that they are procedural norms related more to "fairness" in process than to "justice" in outcomes; some think that they are legal or political fictions ("conceits of the human imagination," which does deny that they are important, useful and valuable); and some say that they are nothing more than rhetorical tropes deployed to justify disputes over the exercise of political power. There is also no consensus on where they come from: some people insist that they are divinely ordained; some think they are the product of natural law; some say that they are social constructions that are culturally relative, historically contingent and endlessly negotiable (we just make them up ourselves); and, others, of course, deny that they even exist as meaningful objects of rational discussion.
Of practical importance are certain obvious and highly disputed issues. If, for example, we accept the existence and agree on at least a basic list of human rights, how are we to define their limits-if any? Does my right to free speech entail my ability to make libelous statements, to employ what is now fashionably known as "hate speech" or, emblematically, to call out "Fire!" in a crowded theatre (unless I detect smoke and flames and reasonably conclude that the audience is in immediate peril)? Are these rights to be construed as "universal," so that local populations lose the "right" (so to speak) to determine which rights should apply in their community? Is there a right to opt out of someone else's charter of rights and to voluntarily surrender certain rights if they do not win the consent of a particular society or group within a society? How, in addition, are we to resolve matters when two sorts of rights seem to be in conflict? So, the right to practice this or that religion is sometimes viewed as a means to deny some people the rights normally given to others: the example of women's rights in certain versions of Christianity and Islam immediately comes to mind.
How to explain, how to define, how to apply and how to prioritize rights are questions with which philosophers, political theorists and politicians have struggled at least since Thomas Hobbes spoke of unlimited rights (and unlimited risk) in "the state of nature. …