MM 2001: Human Rights - Books

December 21, 2000

By Geoffrey Robertson. Penguin, £20.00.

"The notion that 'rights' might belong to anyone, anywhere, as a human inheritance was ridiculed by 19th-century philosophers," says barrister Geoffrey Robertson in his massive Crimes against Humanity . Nuremberg changed that notion; the cold war froze it to a travesty.

Now, argues Robertson, also visiting professor in human rights at Birkbeck College, London, we may be entering an era of global human rights enforcement in which the United Nations and the international criminal tribunal at The Hague mean that "international human rights law can be said to exist in the real world, as well as in the rhetoric of politicians and the pipe-dreams of professors".

Robertson argues that law is gradually replacing diplomacy as the dominant theme in international relations. Nevertheless, the world will have to find new ways of enforcing international human rights law, given that the UN's Human Rights Committee has so far been a "toothless tribunal".

By Amitai Etzioni. Basic Books, £11.00.

Human rights must be seen in the context of responsibilities, argues Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University and founder of America's communitarian movement.

Etzioni challenges the human rights movements to take into account the detrimental effects of over-indulged individualism.

Modernism, with its emphasis on individual rights and autonomy, was a necessary corrective to 18th-century autocracy, he argues. But at some point, western societies lost the balance between the individual and the greater good.

Society has to define its new values and persuade its members to accept their wider responsibilities, too.

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