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The History of Human RightsReview - The History of Human Rights
From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era
by Micheline Ishay
University of California Press, 2008
Review by Aakash Singh, Ph.D.
Nov 25th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 48)

The History of Human Rights was first published in 2004, but the 2008 edition contains a new, insightful Preface, written with the ramifications of "the American fiasco in Iraq" in mind. The contemporary human rights scenario has been altered somewhat by the Iraq war, and the author takes up the current situation with respect to three debates -- that between the globalists and anti-globalists, between the unilateralists and the multilateralists, and that between market ideology and religious fundamentalism. Most impressively, Ishay offers a third alternative to each of these "Manichean divisions," wherein she attempts to accommodate the primary concerns of either side and develop a position that essentially serves to maximize the application of human rights.

Ishay uses the three debates in her new Preface to foreground and distinguish her own innovative ideas on human rights in the post-George W. Bush world. This use of debates nicely mirrors her original Introduction to the book, where six "historical controversies" are enumerated, and serve to organize the vast quantity of material presented in this ambitious history of human rights -- going back all the way to ancient times -- which also presents in several episodes the author's own polemical stance vis-à-vis the main trends in the multi-faceted human rights debates. Since the six controversies roughly correspond to the six chapters of the book, it is worth listing them:

The first controversy (treated in chapter 1) surrounds the origins of human rights -- do human rights arise out of ancient religious traditions or are they antithetical to them? The second controversy (chapter 2) concerns the claim "that our modern conception of rights, wherever in the world it may be voiced, is predominantly European in origin" (5). Presumably Ishay meant to say "human rights" rather than simply "rights," as the latter claim is absurd, or at best tautological (insofar as the term "modern" in the social sciences tends to refer to 17th century Europe and after). At any rate there is a heavy circularity tacit in the assertion, as it begins with the term "our"; obviously our modern conception of human rights is predominantly European in origin (to be sure, our modern conception of everything is predominantly European in origin). But to move on to the third controversy (chapter 3), it is about the socialist contribution to human rights. The fourth controversy (covered in chapter 4, but also partially in chapter 3 and 5) concerns cultural relativism versus universalism. The fifth controversy (chapter 5) is on the tension between security and human rights. And finally, the sixth controversy (covered in chapters 5 and 6) debates whether or not globalization really advances human rights.  

In both the Preface and the Introduction, all of these debates and controversies seem to be mediated and solved by Ishay's recourse or appeal to the letter and spirit of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- a document that assumes a sacred character in her book, beyond the possibility of critique, and never called into question. This is probably not terribly problematic, since most of us -- and certainly anyone who would pick up the book -- would share Ishay's reverence for that document. Nevertheless, many people (e.g. the jurist Ratna Kapur, just to name one prominent person) deeply engaged in some of the controversies that Ishay claims to solve do not place the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under a sacred canopy, and one wonders what alternative set of arguments, if indeed any, the author would appeal to in order to convince them.

We mentioned that the book ambitiously covers a vast scope. This is nowhere more visible than in Chapter 1, which treats of early ethical contributions to human rights, from the most ancient religious scriptures known (the Indian Vedas) through Babylonian and Hebraic, Chinese and ancient Greek, Hellenistic and Roman, early Christian and classical Islamic scriptures, among other writings and traditions! And all this in forty-five pages. Actually, forty-five rather tedious pages packed with inaccurate scholarship and shoddy citation. The author is clearly out of her league in the global historical survey of Chapter 1, and the reader wishes every few pages that Ishay had chosen to concentrate these topics into only ten terse, precise pages instead. Some examples: during a discussion of King Asoka, Ishay writes that "Buddhism became, under his control, a vehicle for conversion by persuasion rather than force" (30). Persuasion by force? Buddhism? Where did she get that? Her source, indubitably, would have been asserting that Asoka himself, after his conversion to Buddhism, attempted to govern his kingdom by persuasion rather than by force; such was the effect of the pacifistic Buddhist tradition on him -- a tradition never known to convert by force. More inaccuracies: Ishay refers to vaishyas as "commoners," rather than mercantilists, and bizarrely speaks of untouchables as "the lowest caste" (49); untouchables, of course, are not the lowest caste (which are the shudras, whom she had already mentioned), but are outside caste. Strangely, when the reader looks up the citation for her remarks on untouchable leader Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956), he gets a reference to the fourth section of the Arthashastra, a text from the fourth century BC!

The first chapter contains an excellent and valuable motif, the premodern history and sources of the idea of human rights. But it has been executed in such a sloppy manner that a précis of the topic would have been far more effective than the laborious version presented.

The second chapter continues with jumbled citations, with references to J.M. Roberts' The History of the World conflated with E.L. Jones' The European Miracle -- perhaps this confused equation is not so incorrect, ultimately, since the nature of the chapter is to attempt to defend the contention that human rights as we understand them today are predominantly a legacy of the European enlightenment. Chapter 3, which covers the contribution to human rights theory by socialist thought and movements, is rather mechanical, and does not improve much upon the scores of other monographs on the topic.

The scholarship, and indeed not just the accuracy and care, but even the sense of passion and interest conveyed, begins to improve quite drastically when, in Chapter 4, we finally reach the 20th century. In fact, the final three chapters (4, 5 & 6) are of such superior quality to the first three (which had covered the vast period from 2000 BCE up to the 20th century) that readers may wish, after the very worthwhile Preface and Introduction, to jump right to Chapter 4 and read from there to the end. This strategy would also prove to be an effective way to overcome the hesitation to pick up the tome in the first place — the book appears do dauntingly thick. In this regard, it is worth noting that the main text is only around 350 pages, with about 100 pages of notes, a comprehensive bibliography, and analytic index tacked on to the end. If, as I suggest, one skips Chapters 1-3, that brings the reading down to only 175 pages -- that is, 175 well researched, elegantly written, and visibly inspired pages.  

As adumbrated, the second half of the book is less chronological and more thematic, covering the impact of security issues and globalization on human rights theory and practice. This is where Professor Ishay truly shines, and where her unique contribution to the human rights debates takes on some significance. Through a prudential approach, she attempts to mediate between realists and idealists, statists and cosmopolitans, and those who would favor security at the expense of human rights. Her insistence on maintaining the integrity and spirit of the 1949 Universal Declaration while addressing the security challenges of the post September-11 world will likely find favor in both sides of the debate(s). 

Finally, the capacious book ends with a useful Appendix providing a chronology of events and writings related to human rights. Unfortunately, although it really should have been, the author and publisher failed to update this chronology for the 2008 edition.

© 2008 Aakash Singh

Aakash Singh is a Research Professor at the Center of Ethics and Global Politics, Luiss University, Rome.


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