The best books for understanding the power and the limits of human rights

Michael Freeman Author Of Human Rights
By Michael Freeman

Who am I?

I am an emeritus professor in the Department of Government, University of Essex. I taught political theory for many years with a speciality in the theory and practice of human rights. I'm the author of Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism and Human Rights. I've published many articles in political theory, philosophy of social science, and human rights. I've directed academic programmes in political theory, The Enlightenment, and human rights. I've lectured on human rights in some 25 countries. I was a founder-member of my local branch of Amnesty International and served on the board of Amnesty’s British Section for five years, for two years as its Chairperson.


I wrote...

Human Rights

By Michael Freeman,

Book cover of Human Rights

What is my book about?

The United Nations committed itself to the promotion of human rights in its Charter of 1945 and elaborated these principles in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then a vast body of international, regional and national law has developed to clarify and protect human rights. Yet for a long time the social sciences largely ignored these developments.

Since the end of the last century, social science has woken up to the role human rights play in international and national law and politics. In this book, I describe and evaluate these contributions, and relate them to human rights law and `real-world’ politics. I consider the interaction of law and politics, claims of `universal’ rights and cultural diversity, human rights and global inequalities, and the supposed crisis of liberal democracy.

The books I picked & why

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The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century

By Helena Rosenblatt,

Book cover of The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century

Why this book?

The concept of human rights will seem to many at first sight a powerful, positive, and relatively uncontroversial idea. However, the concept is both historically and philosophically bound up with the political theory of liberalism which is very controversial. Many people praise or condemn liberalism without a clear idea of what it is, how it developed historically, or its diverse forms. Helena Rosenblatt’s valuable history tells the story of liberalism from ancient times to the present, showing us the various forms it can take and has taken.

Contrary to widely held beliefs liberalism has been concerned not only with individual rights but with individual duties and the common good. Thus liberalism is not simply opposed to conservatism or socialism but has complex relationships with these rival philosophies. All contemporary debates about liberalism are likely to remain confused if they fail to take account of Rosenblatt’s history.


Making Sense of Human Rights

By James Nickel,

Book cover of Making Sense of Human Rights

Why this book?

Perhaps the best explanation and defence of the contemporary concept of human rights. Nickel addresses theoretical problems of justifying human rights, practical problems of implementing them, and dilemmas to which they give rise. It is written with unusual clarity. On the one hand, as a philosopher he does not take for granted that human rights make sense or that all uses of the idea deserve our support. On the other hand, he does not engage in debunking the idea that has been fashionable on both the political left and right. This is a most thoughtful and balanced account and is highly recommendable to those seeking a readable introduction to the philosophy of human rights.

I particularly liked his `lawnmower theory of human rights'. One of the challenges to human rights theory is why we should think of human rights as `universal’ – as the UN and international human rights law claim – rather than merely a historically contingent cultural preference of the West. Nickel suggests that the modern state is like the lawnmower: both were invented in the West; both have advantages and dangers, and it is universally true that we should seek to maximize the advantages and minimize the dangers. Human rights seek to promote the advantages of state power while minimizing the dangers. Nickel also usefully `deconstructs’ the UN myth that human rights are `indivisible’ by painstakingly showing that the relationships among different rights are complex and to some extent contingent.


Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century

By Kathryn Sikkink,

Book cover of Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century

Why this book?

When social scientists began to ask the question – neglected by human rights lawyers and activists – whether international human rights law actually improved the enjoyment of human rights, they came up with largely negative answers: international human rights law had no effect, or very little effect, or was sometimes counter-productive, being associated with more human rights violations, depending on the research methods used. Kathryn Sikkink was among the leading scholars challenging these results, showing that the previous studies greatly oversimplified the human rights world.

Her book, Evidence for Hope, brings together the empirical evidence showing that human rights law sometimes, in some places, improves the enjoyment of some human rights. Sikkink defends the human rights movement from the charge of `utopianism’ by turning the tables on the critics and accusing them of unrealistic expectations for human rights law. The human rights struggle takes place on a hard road but there is solid evidence that progress has been made and that further progress can be made in the future. Science, realism, and hope can be combined.

Academics, journalists, and ordinary citizens (including even human rights activists) are often more impressed by bad news than by good news. Human rights disasters (Cambodia, Rwanda, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ukraine) rightly hit the headlines, but important human rights improvements (for example, in maternal and infant mortality or disability rights) are less noticed. Indeed, increased concern for human rights has led to better information about human rights violations and, paradoxically, the dubious belief that human rights have not improved and may well have deteriorated.

Sikkink brings us the good news about human rights on the basis of comprehensive and systematic research. Sikkink, a specialist in Latin America as well as in international human rights, also argues robustly against the widely-held view that human rights were a Western imposition on the rest, documenting the contribution of non-Western countries to the development and acceptance of international human rights law and the ambivalence of the West to these developments. Sikkink’s book exemplifies two primary virtues: hope for a better world and action for a better world informed by the best available evidence.


Human Rights and Their Limits

By Wiktor Osiatyński,

Book cover of Human Rights and Their Limits

Why this book?

Wiktor Osiatyński was a distinguished Polish constitutional and human rights lawyer who died in 2017 and who, among many other achievements, contributed to the drafting of the post-Communist constitution of Poland. He was a member of the board of the Open Society Foundation and a greatly admired teacher of human rights. Human Rights and Their Limits is one of the most carefully balanced accounts of human rights available in English. Osiatyński argues against human rights absolutism, pointing out that excessive respect for rights can undermine the democracy that is the precondition of rights protection, and that rights have to be balanced against other social and personal values.

He vividly illustrates the hypocrisy of states that talk the talk of human rights when it suits their interests but refuse to walk the walk when it does not. The hope for human rights, therefore, lies primarily not in the institutions of the state but in the organizations of civil society. Civil society organizations, however, could be effective only if they engaged in the issues that concern ordinary people, especially those neglected by dominant political and economic institutions. Human rights can be an exclusionary discourse. Constitutions are important frameworks for the protection of human rights, but the struggle for rights is more political than legal.

Osiatyński controversially distinguished civil and political rights, on the one hand, from economic and social rights, on the other hand, on the ground that the latter depends on everyone fulfilling their duties to the common welfare. Others have pointed out that the fulfillment of all human rights requires resources (fair trials, for example, can be more expensive than health care) and therefore depend on a fair allocation of both rights and responsibilities. There is room for reasonable disagreement with some of this book’s treatments of the admittedly knotty problems of human rights theory and practice, but the book is, in the best sense, a provocative and successful account of human rights and their limits.


Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law Into Local Justice

By Sally Engle Merry,

Book cover of Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law Into Local Justice

Why this book?

The initial reaction of anthropologists to the UN’s proposal for a universal declaration of human rights was to question it on the ground that it might be no more than an expression of the cultures of the world’s dominant powers. Human rights universalism was opposed by cultural relativism, the idea that no or few values are universally valid as values derive from particular cultures. Anthropologists then discovered that the cultural groups that they typically studied – `indigenous’ peoples – often suffered the most serious human rights violations and that ignoring this was ethically and scientifically unacceptable.

Although many anthropologists are still attracted to cultural relativism, some have not only embraced human rights but have made an original and distinctive contribution to our understanding of the human rights world in at least two respects: 1) understanding the culture of this world, and 2) understanding the real-world interaction of human rights and local cultures. Merry’s book is one of the finest examples of anthropological work that respects both the cultural diversity of the world and the potential of international human rights to solve the problems and enhance the rights of the socially powerless. It achieves this by focussing on the gap between gender violence in international human rights law and the lived experience of women.

The practical import of the study is to emphasise that international human rights advocacy, to be effective, must work with the grain of local cultures and not simply `blame’ them for their supposed shortcomings. People are attached to their cultures and their response to human rights advocacy will always be culturally inflected. The culture of international human rights law may seem `alien’ to those living in local cultures, but, contrary to the views of some cultural relativists, cultures are flexible and changeable, and so even `traditional’ cultures can be open to human rights influences. In such processes, `translators’ – those familiar with both global and local cultures – may be crucial.


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