Legal textbooks are rarely innocent of political and cultural values. These two international human-rights texts, designed for undergraduate and graduate students, narrate more than a story of legal norms. Beneath an impressive mass of detail on conventions, institutions and mechanisms, there emerges a more problematic narrative of the West’s centrality to international human rights. In these two accounts, human rights are presented as natural and rooted in Europe and North America while alien in the non-western world.
Javaid Rehman’s book is in places quite troubling, particularly his remarks on Africa. “Africa has witnessed substantial violations of human rights. In pre-colonial Africa, unfortunate practices such as human sacrifices, torture and infanticide were performed.”
There is a cursory mention of colonialism but Rehman castigates the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) for having a “genuine distaste” for human rights.
His chapter concludes by reinforcing western centrality as he pronounces that the “modern history of Africa has been an unfortunate one, and the transition to independent statehood has not been satisfactory”.
However, Rehman does not look in the same way at Europe’s history. He makes no serious references to authoritarian regimes surviving until the 1970s in western Europe or until the 1990s in eastern Europe, let alone to the crusades, the inquisition, colonialism, slavery or the Holocaust. Rehman disconnects more than 350 years of breathtaking disregard for Africans’ human rights by European colonialism from current realities.
Rhona Smith also has a rather Eurocentric view of human rights: “The existence of a body of basic rights can be traced back to the early 13th century in Europe.” This a strange comment given that rights such as the freedom of conscience or speech were actually quite unknown in societies then run by authoritarian patriarchies. Nonetheless, she is willing to concede that “the basic tenets of all faiths” might also offer some interesting sources of human rights. She mentions Islam, but does not develop the point, returning to the conventional story of the alleged human-rights triumphs scored by the European revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Ironically, it is precisely these centuries that coincide with the massive expansion of European colonialism that destroyed peoples and cultures and created an international system of exploitation based on slavery, genocide, racism and occupation. Yet for Smith, contemporary Africa is characterised by “civil unrest, authoritarian rule, inter-faction fighting and natural disasters”.
In a multicultural world, international human rights are too important to be presented in such a parochial manner. Europe and North America by and large embraced the idea of human rights after the second world war. It needs to be stressed that this process came about through the struggles of groups previously excluded from and discriminated against by legal power. Without the action of colonised peoples, women, ethnic minorities, lesbians and gays and so on there would be no international human-rights law today.
Both texts are disappointing in conveying a passive and statist view. Students in the 21st century need to grasp that international human rights will flourish only as a genuinely international adventure.
John Strawson teaches in the School of Law, University of East London.
International Human Rights Law: A Practical Approach. First edition
Author - Javaid Rehman
ISBN - 0 582 43773 3
Publisher - Longman
Price - £28.99
Pages - 494