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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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