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Book Review: Stacy’s Human Rights for the 21st Century

In the lat­est install­ment of book reviews, Nali­ni Gup­ta lauds Human Rights for the 21st Cen­tu­ry, by Helen M. Sta­cy for pro­vid­ing a com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of human rights work. How­ev­er, Gup­ta notes that Sta­cy risks over­sim­pli­fy­ing the issues in her attempt to divide major cri­tiques of the inter­na­tion­al human rights sys­tem into three cat­e­gories: sov­er­eign­ty, civ­il soci­ety, and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.

By Nali­ni Gup­ta

In Human Rights for the 21st Cen­tu­ry, Helen Sta­cy address­es the major cri­tiques of the inter­na­tion­al human rights frame­work, offer­ing sug­ges­tions on how to fill gaps in the cur­rent sys­tem in order to strength­en the frame­work. Sta­cy orga­nizes the major cri­tiques of the inter­na­tion­al human rights sys­tem into three cat­e­gories: sov­er­eign­ty, civ­il soci­ety, and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Respond­ing to each of these cri­tiques, she argues that the law and the courts must con­tin­ue to play a crit­i­cal role in the human rights sys­tem, but their role must be adjust­ed to adapt to the chal­lenges posed by the cur­rent world order. Stacy’s book is a wor­thy read, pro­vid­ing a com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the cur­rent chal­lenges of the cur­rent human rights frame­work and offer­ing inter­est­ing and prac­ti­cal pro­pos­als aimed at improv­ing the present sys­tem.

Accord­ing to Sta­cy, the sov­er­eign­ty cri­tique con­tends that inter­na­tion­al human rights stan­dards con­sist of emp­ty rhetoric; regard­less of the treaties they sign and promis­es they make, states con­tin­ue to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly vio­late human rights. Human rights treaties lack inter­na­tion­al enforce­ment pow­er, and thus inter­na­tion­al human rights law has force only to the extent that it over­laps with a state’s self-inter­est. Sta­cy responds to this cri­tique by propos­ing a new con­cep­tion of sov­er­eign­ty— that of rela­tion­al sov­er­eign­ty. While tra­di­tion­al sov­er­eign­ty main­tains that gov­ern­ments are the supreme author­i­ty with­in their state bor­ders, sov­er­eign­ty today has a new mean­ing as a result of glob­al eco­nom­ic rela­tion­ships, increased infor­ma­tion flow lead­ing to greater knowl­edge about human rights vio­la­tions occur­ring in oth­er states, and post­colo­nial ideas of equal­i­ty of human rights. Rela­tion­al sov­er­eign­ty empha­sizes a state’s diplo­mat­ic, eco­nom­ic, and mil­i­tary rela­tion­ships with oth­er states, not­ing that in today’s glob­al­ized world a state has an inter­est in increased coop­er­a­tion with oth­er states. Giv­en this new mean­ing of sov­er­eign­ty, Sta­cy argues that tra­di­tion­al sov­er­eign­ty should be dis­re­gard­ed and states should be per­mit­ted to inter­vene when anoth­er state com­mits egre­gious human rights vio­la­tions or allows for wide­spread deaths by star­va­tion or dis­ease despite hav­ing the resources to pre­vent such cat­a­stro­phes.

Sta­cy makes a con­vinc­ing argu­ment about the need for human­i­tar­i­an inter­ven­tion, point­ing to the crises in Rwan­da and the Sudan to illus­trate why the cur­rent frame­work for inter­na­tion­al inter­ven­tion has failed and to the inter­ven­tions in Koso­vo and East Tim­or to illus­trate why present legal def­i­n­i­tions are out­dat­ed. Yet she is care­ful to advance a new frame­work that places con­straints on the behav­ior of pow­er­ful states: a state exer­cis­ing human­i­tar­i­an inter­ven­tion will be lim­it­ed not only by moral considerations—such as con­sid­er­a­tion of the extent of the harm—but also by prac­ti­cal and pro­ce­dur­al con­sid­er­a­tions. Thus, a state should inter­vene only if it is clear that inter­ven­tion will make sus­tain­able improve­ments to the human rights sit­u­a­tion and if the sin­gle motive of the inter­ven­ing state is to rem­e­dy human rights vio­la­tions. Sta­cy believes that human­i­tar­i­an inter­ven­tion for democ­ra­cy pro­mo­tion goes too far. Giv­en the many checks pro­posed under Stacy’s new rubric, she is suc­cess­ful in sug­gest­ing a prin­ci­pled frame­work that cur­tails the poten­tial for pow­er­ful states to use the pre­text of human­i­tar­i­an inter­ven­tion as a means of mere­ly advanc­ing their own inter­ests.

The civ­il soci­ety cri­tique main­tains that extra-legal insti­tu­tions are in a bet­ter posi­tion than courts to advance inter­na­tion­al human rights. For exam­ple, non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions have been suc­cess­ful in rais­ing the pro­file of social jus­tice issues, lead­ing states to attach human rights con­di­tions to trade and oth­er eco­nom­ic agree­ments. Yet these approach­es are inher­ent­ly lim­it­ed, and Sta­cy argues that law is nec­es­sary to sup­ple­ment civ­il soci­ety move­ments. She writes that “courts pro­vide the con­nec­tion between pol­i­tics and prac­tices” by trans­form­ing abstract norms into tan­gi­ble rights. Courts stand in a unique insti­tu­tion­al posi­tion in that they are able to apply gen­er­al rights in spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances and con­duct fact-find­ing to iden­ti­fy rel­e­vant evi­dence regard­ing a rights vio­la­tion. Fur­ther­more, since courts are con­strained by pro­ce­dur­al stan­dards, they enjoy cred­i­bil­i­ty that civ­il soci­ety insti­tu­tions often lack.

Although from the U.S. per­spec­tive courts may be in a posi­tion to artic­u­late human rights norms in a man­ner that com­ple­ments the work of civ­il soci­ety, Stacy’s argu­ment is vul­ner­a­ble to the crit­i­cism that in many states—especially those in which human rights are sub­ject to the most abuse—national courts are not actu­al­ly in an insti­tu­tion­al posi­tion to per­form this func­tion. Instead, these nation­al courts are often back­logged, sub­ject to polit­i­cal pres­sure and manip­u­la­tion, and viewed as entire­ly ille­git­i­mate by the pub­lic. While she pro­vides exam­ples from India and Colom­bia, Sta­cy does not suf­fi­cient­ly address how courts in states in which the judi­cial sys­tem lacks inde­pen­dence may be suc­cess­ful in fur­ther­ing human rights stan­dards that their gov­ern­ments oth­er­wise flout.

Last­ly, the mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism cri­tique ques­tions whether inter­na­tion­al human rights norms are pos­si­ble in a world of diverse reli­gions, beliefs, and cul­tures. The tra­di­tion of human rights has large­ly exclud­ed non-West­ern view­points, and human rights are often seen by non-West­ern coun­tries as a colo­nial­ist impo­si­tion of West­ern val­ues. As a response to this cri­tique, Sta­cy pro­motes region­al­ism as a method of bridg­ing the gap between a com­plete­ly inter­na­tion­al court sys­tem, which threat­ens to dis­re­gard and dis­re­spect local cul­ture, and a com­plete­ly local court sys­tem, which often lacks cred­i­bil­i­ty because of polit­i­cal influ­ences that com­pro­mise judi­cial inde­pen­dence. Region­al courts avoid many mul­ti­cul­tur­al chal­lenges because they are in touch with local cus­toms and tra­di­tions and are geo­graph­i­cal­ly close to the peo­ple who are affect­ed by their judg­ments. Stacey points to the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion of Human Rights, the Inter-Amer­i­can Com­mis­sion, and the African Court on Human and Peo­ples’ Rights as evi­dence of the move­ment toward region­al­ism, and advo­cates for the cre­ation of an Asso­ci­a­tion of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region­al human rights court. Sta­cy also points to the suc­cess of hybrid courts—particularly the Spe­cial Court of Sier­ra Leone—in high­light­ing a nov­el method for avoid­ing the chal­lenges of exclu­sive­ly nation­al or exclu­sive­ly inter­na­tion­al post-con­flict tri­bunals.

Stacy’s argu­ment high­light­ing the impor­tance of region­al­ism and hybrid courts is her most pow­er­ful claim. As she right­ly under­scores, the inter­na­tion­al law regime often lacks legit­i­ma­cy because it is a sys­tem based upon West­ern tra­di­tions. In order to be suc­cess­ful, human rights move­ments have to be, at least in part, organ­ic move­ments that are root­ed in and legit­imized by the val­ues and tra­di­tions of the peo­ple they affect. Region­al­ist sys­tems, though not guar­an­teed to suc­ceed, are in a bet­ter posi­tion to rec­og­nize and address the unique chal­lenges of the cul­tures in which they oper­ate.

While Sta­cy pro­vides a clear and acces­si­ble overview of the flaws and chal­lenges of the cur­rent human rights frame­work, her tri­par­tite clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem of the major cri­tiques is over­ly sim­plis­tic, as her own analy­sis ends up sug­gest­ing. Her own argu­ment indi­cates that these crit­i­cisms are in fact very inter­twined and inter­de­pen­dent, and thus her own respons­es to each cri­tique draw heav­i­ly upon one anoth­er. In par­tic­u­lar, Sta­cy keeps on com­ing back to the theme of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and the risk of impos­ing West­ern ideals on non-West­ern cul­tures and tra­di­tions. Per­haps Sta­cy would have ben­e­fit­ed from address­ing this as an over­ar­ch­ing theme, rather than pigeon­hol­ing it as a dis­tinct crit­i­cism of the cur­rent frame­work with a response that can be divorced from the oth­er solu­tions.

While Stacy’s indi­vid­ual respons­es to the crit­i­cisms of the cur­rent human rights frame­work are not ground­break­ing, her pro­pos­als draw upon a rich mix of polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, legal the­o­ry, his­tor­i­cal accounts, and cur­rent events. In doing so, Sta­cy is suc­cess­ful in advanc­ing a com­pre­hen­sive the­sis about the nec­es­sary role of law in inter­na­tion­al human rights that is ground­ed in a pletho­ra of his­tor­i­cal evi­dence and con­tem­po­rary con­tro­ver­sies. Thus, her argu­ment is pow­er­ful on both prac­ti­cal and nor­ma­tive grounds. Yet in high­light­ing so many case stud­ies, Sta­cy at times buries her the­sis in an excess of sto­ries. While for the most part her use of his­to­ry and the­o­ry is suc­cess­ful in illu­mi­nat­ing her argu­ment, at times the read­er may feel lost when she presents her own pro­pos­als in an over­ly con­vo­lut­ed fash­ion.

Over­all, Human Rights in the 21st Cen­tu­ry is an inter­est­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the cur­rent human rights lit­er­a­ture. Its strength rests on its wide-rang­ing respons­es to the crit­i­cisms of the cur­rent frame­work and its attempt to pro­vide prac­ti­cal and attain­able solu­tions to these prob­lems. It is a wor­thy read for stu­dents and schol­ars seek­ing to gain knowl­edge about the philo­soph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal evo­lu­tion of inter­na­tion­al human rights and the sys­tem which we have been left with today.

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