The Basics of Human Rights from Interdisciplinary Approaches: Four Reference Books. (2013) 19(1) Web JCLI 6

The Basics of Human Rights from Interdisciplinary Approaches: Four Reference Books.

Yves Laberge, Ph.D.

Affiliated member of the Équipe FQRSC, Centre institutionnel de recherche en éducation, environnement, écocitoyenneté, Québec

© 2013 Yves Laberge
First published in the Web Journal of Current Legal Issues
Citation: Laberge Y., The Basics of Human Rights from Interdisciplinary Approaches: Four Reference Books, (2013) 18(1) Web JCLI


This review essay briefly presents four very different books on Human Rights. Although their approaches are centred on politics, all these titles are interdisciplinary in focus.
Andrew Vincent (2010) The Politics of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Vi+262pp, £19.99, 978 0 19 923897 2
Andrew Fagan (2010) The Atlas of Human Rights: Mapping Violations of Freedom Around the Globe. Berkeley: University of California Press with Meryad Editions. 128pp, $21.95, £12.99, 978 0 520 26123 5
Sarah Joseph and Adam McBeth (eds) (2010) Research Handbook on International Human Rights Law. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar. Xiv+596pp, £170, Hardcover. 978 1 84720 368 7
David P. Forsythe (eds) (2009) Encyclopedia of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press. 2646pp (5 volumes), £370. 978 0 19 533402 9


1. Comparative approaches to Human Rights studies
2. Bringing Human Rights into a political science perspective
3. Mapping Human Rights
4. Human Rights between politics and law
5. An Encyclopaedia for Human Rights
6. Conclusion

1. Comparative approaches to Human Rights studies

The vast domain of Human Rights can be studied in various disciplines, from philosophy to law, from geopolitics to history, but as well in social sciences and international relations. Even though they might look like a mixed bag when taken alltogether, these four books using interdisciplinary approaches to Human Rights feature a strong political contents and will therefore be reviewed in this article. Each one seems like an excellent entry point into the studying of Human Rights.

2. Bringing Human Rights into a political science perspective

Because of its interdisciplinary nature, many scholars in Human Rights studies feel a strong presence of philosophy, ethics, and law in that field, and therefore note a lack of the political dimensions. However, in The Politics of Human Rights, Professor Andrew Vincent (from the University of Sheffield) argues that “an understanding of human rights must focus primarily on politics and we should try if possible to avoid the overt languages of morality and legality” (p. 1). Furthermore, the author tries to avoid these non-political dimensions and states “that there is no external regulative moral or religious standards for human rights” (p. 2). Each of the eight chapters explores a specific dimension, owing much to political philosophy and history, explaining how some concepts related to citizenship and the civil state have changed since 18th century, insisting on the historical importance of genocides. For instance, in his chapter “From Genocide to Human Rights”, Andrew Vincent notes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed just one day after the signature of the UN Genocide Convention, in 1948 (p. 107). Hence, Vincent links these two important events and discusses as well other mass killings during 20th century, citing Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Milošević’s Serbia (p. 107). However, Vincent does not mention namely the 1932-1933 Holodomor (the infamous forced famine planned by the Stalin regime) in Ukraine, although he considers broadly what he coins as “Stalin’s Russia” in his partial enumeration of genocides (p. 107).

Obviously, Vincent is well aware of the fact that ideologies have created many conflicting visions and distortions of Human Rights, especially since the Cold War era, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was released (p. 136). Past issues related to the inclusion of social, economical, political rights are reviewed and commented, referring to the writings of many political scientists from Hannah Arendt to Raymond Geuss (p. 164). Newer considerations such as cultural Rights, animal rights (!), and even sustainable development (as defined in the famous Brundtland Report) are included in the fourth generation of Human Rights studies (p. 147). And Vincent does not include everything and every topic in his Human Rights scheme, reminding us that John Rawls did not consider poverty and other social issues; he did not see “distributive justice arising from international human rights and the law of people” (p. 195). Vincent’s final thoughts discuss the links between Human Rights and citizenship, the nation, and identity.

Andrew Vincent successfully reinserts Human Rights into a series of political concepts; he sees the civil state as being “both subject and object of Human Rights” (p. 158), adding that “Human Rights are part of the configuration of the civil state – understood politically” (p. 158). The idea that rights are “established or accredited ways of acting within an institutional or collective setting” instead of being conceived as “external valid claims” reappears here and there, introducing a welcome sociological dimension (p. 183). The author is also bringing in some ambiguous values such as loyalty and patriotism in the last chapter on “Citizenship and Human Rights“, arguing “that it is possible to find a resolution to the relation between human rights and loyalty or even patriotism (of sorts) to a civil state” (p. 228).

In my view, The Politics of Human Rights would fit graduate students who wish to explore the origins of Human Rights within a social science perspective, without the omnipresence of the ethical and juridical dimensions (which are not totally absent from this book, however). Of course, this is not to say that this book was written against other disciplines; philosophers from Hobbes, Hegel to Axel Honneth are aptly quoted all along (p. 181). Perhaps Vincent’s book could have been titled as well “The political philosophy of Human Rights from an historical perspective”, which would have been more accurate given its contents and approach about how the initial idea of Human Rights evolved in past centuries until today.

3. Mapping Human Rights

Co-produced with Myriad Editions, Andrew Fagan’s colourful Atlas of Human Rights is an impressive mapping of the current and recent violations of human rights in various places, with various thematical sections dedicated to identity, legal restrictions, freedom of expression, migration, discrimination, Women’s rights, children’s rights. Like about any atlas in geography or humanities, this useful book shows at about every page countless maps using various colours comparing countries and political regimes; but in this case, we get basic notions and statistics related to political rights, religious freedom, sexual freedom, discriminations, racism, domestic violence, child soldiers, education, and many others. Issues like the quality of life, which includes access to clean water, are discussed (p. 24). Another series of maps indicates the “non-ratifying countries” for international United Nations’ conventions like the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (pp. 14-15). The last chapters focus on Women’s rights and children’s rights, with maps indicating the places where women are denied voting rights or civil rights (p. 74). However, the issue of the headscarf and the burqa are not discussed here.

Fagan’s Atlas of Human Rights is a very practical tool: clear for undergraduates and instructive even for teachers and scholars. Apart from maps, a useful series of thematic chronologies are included: for example, a list of the 20th century Genocides beginning with the Armenians victims of the Ottoman Turkey (from 1914 to 1918), followed by the Holodomor in Ukraine (1932-1933), the Chinese victims in the Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese imperial army (1937), the Jews victims of Nazi Germany, and others (pp. 48-49). However, in this last case, I would have stated the dates 1933 to 1945 (instead of 1941 to 1945), since persecutions from the German state against their Jewish citizens made victims from the year Hitler came to power (p. 48). Elsewhere, the pages related to Freedom of speech do not include language rights, for instance for many French-Canadians who do not always get services in their language in the Western part of their country, although French is one of the two official languages in Canada (pp. 40-42). The fifth section also present the religious freedom and related persecutions in the world, mainly in the Middle-East and China, although there is a unexpected negative remark against France because of its banning of religious symbols in the government offices and public places in order to respect the principle of “laïcité” (pp. 62-63). But in this case, the author does not present both sides of this debate.

Among many excellent figures, the pages locating oppressed minority groups and racism in the world are excellent because they present the violations of minority rights in various ways and in different countries (pp. 64-67). In the final section (pp. 98-113), we find a series of one-paragraph profiles about human rights issues in over one hundred countries, presented in alphabetical order, including many lesser-known states where human rights are contested or denied: Honduras, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, both Koreas, and many others. Each state, even among “advanced countries”, is getting here one paragraph of severe criticism, often in a “leftist” tone. For example, Sweden gets criticized here “for failing to accept Eritrean asylum-seekers” (p. 110). It is not clear, however, on which criteria the few targeted countries have been selected in each category as tangible examples of Human Rights violations.

Because it provides data for many countries in a clear fashion, this unique Atlas of Human Rights will instruct students from college to the doctoral levels, and will serve as a basic source of statistics for researchers in various domains. But this reference book should not be seen as just an illustrated tool dedicated only for undergraduates and geographers; it is rather a very instructive resource for all levels in geopolitics, history, and political science education. In fact, because of its clear and straightforward style, this Atlas of Human Rights could even serve as an overview or an initiation to Human Rights Studies for undergraduates.

4. Human Rights between politics and law

Despite its title focusing on law, Sarah Joseph and Adam McBeth’s edited Research Handbook on International Human Rights Law features an impressive number of chapters related to political science. About half of the 21 chapters in this impressive handbook focus either on a political approach, theory, or present a case study centred on a specific country (in many cases Asia). Three examples can give a general idea. First, Chapter 5 on Non-Governmental Organisations’ activities show how some NGOs can work with the private sector in new, unpredicted forms of cooperation, especially in troubled countries like Sudan and Myanmar for issues such as fair labour and the avoidance of child labour (p. 129). Among multinational companies doing positive partnerships with NGOs are notably Exxon Mobil and Rio Tinto, partnering with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and OXFAM (p. 129). Secondly, regarding governance, Chapter 13 focuses on the needed reforms with the Council of Europe’s many Conventions and especially its European Social Charter (p. 346). New issues and challenges do emerge: for example, according to one source, it seems like European states such as France will have to face more unpredicted obligations towards illegal immigrants for their children’s healthcare in the French territory, despite their non-legal status (p. 351).

Focusing on international relations, Chapters 16 to 21 are perhaps among the most interesting for political scientists and educators, with the final pages discussing a possible definition of Human Rights Education, understood as “training and information aiming at building a universal culture of Human Rights through the sharing of knowledge, imparting of skills and moulding of attitudes” (p. 548). This detailed and comprehensive definition of Human Rights Education was penned in 2009 by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for the World Programme for Human Rights Education. Many themes follow this definition, including respect, fundamental freedoms, dignity, understanding, tolerance, rule of law, the building of peace, and finally “the promotion of people-centred sustainable development and social justice” (p. 548).

Possibly among the most accurate essays, Chapter 16 discusses the “Asian values cultural debate”; as such, many Asian countries went through a speedy transition from authoritarian regimes to democracy in just a few decades; but despite these evident progresses, the old practices remain, and “each of these systems has continued to be plagued with the lingering residue of their authoritarian past” (p. 417).

As with most handbooks, these chapters can provide the recent trends and main topics in Human Rights studies; graduate students considering doing a masters will mostly benefit from consulting it, in almost any order. In sum, despite its main focus on law, courts, and prosecutions (which is not a bad thing per se), this Research Handbook on International Human Rights Law offers an important resource in political science and International Relations that is rich in perspectives and sources.

5. An Encyclopaedia for Human Rights

Last but certainly not least, David Forsythe’s Encyclopedia of Human Rights is an tremendous reference book and, given its price which cannot be afforded by students, is an essential resource for libraries in universities.

Taken together, all five volumes gather more than 300 entries which rather look like detailed chapters or thematic essays (between 5 and 12 pages) about concepts, countries, persons, NGOs, groups, religions, plus various conventions, charters and international treaties. The perspectives and disciplinary approaches used in the chapters are varied and often interdisciplinary, taking from philosophy, history, politics, law, and International Relations. This is a welcome contrast with so many reference books in Human Rights that focus only on law, legislation, and juridictions. Among many topics, one can read about “African Union”, Armenians, “Film and Human Rights”, “Right to Privacy”, Minority Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Tibet, and hundreds of others. Beyond the obvious choices of entries, transversal looks at Human Rights issues are often the most interesting discussions in these pages. However, some sub-themes are not present, as there is no entry as such about language rights, although they are discussed elsewhere in the entry on minorities. Although they are being mentioned here and there in all five volumes, some countries like Canada and Switzerland do not have a single entry on their own, but the final index facilitates cross-reference and thematical research.

Even though it is risky to handpick just a few articles as a showcase, the core chapter on “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” illustrates how this encyclopaedia works: we get the general context, the historical background, the first drafting, the meanings, the challenges and the limits. The 1948 Declaration is clearly defined as “an embodiment of universal freedoms and rights that establish norms for the structuring of relationships between the political authority and its subjects” (volume 5, p. 251). Here, Professor Bård Andreassen writes that “Human Rights are responses to societal threats to human freedom, welfare, and dignity”, adding that the UDHR did not come out of the blue in 1948: “the Declaration grew out of historical experiences such as the Holocaust and other atrocities before and during World War II” (p. 251).

An essential entry, the chapter on “The History of Human Rights” indicates that this particular approach “centers on the long struggle to realize the worth of human beings in the face of prejudice, discrimination, exploitation, oppression, enslavement, persecution, torture, and extermination” (volume 2, p. 394). And because Human Rights history is often debated and contested, as are Human Rights initiatives, one has to admit that “it is a history of controversy over definitions, meanings, origins, applicability, and methods” (volume 2, p. 394), hence this Encyclopaedia.

A central topic in Human Rights Studies, the excellent chapter on “Genocide” is very instructive for its definitions and case studies related to this term, created in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin. Even though this entry admits that “The paradigm of modern genocides is of course the Nazi Holocaust or Shoah, the partially successful attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe”, we find as well three other cases of genocide in 20th century presented here: first, “the attack on Herero people by German colonialists” (in 1904) in what is known today as Namibia, then “the massacres of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish regime in 1915”, and the more recent “attempted extermination of Rwanda’s Tutsi population by racist extremists in 1994” (volume 2, p. 294). Further on, this rich entry insists on the fact that the “use of the term ‘Genocide’ continues to provoke fierce debate”, creating a nuance between “Genocide” and “Crimes against humanity”, which are similar but not synonymous (volume 2, p. 295).

The chapter on “Colonialism” is representative of the structure and progression used in this Encyclopedia. The entry begins with some classifications and theoretical thoughts: the need to observe three historical moments: the origins of colonialism, the end of colonialism, and finally the consequences of colonialism (volume 1, p. 361). The following discussion presents a series of cases and illustrations (from Congo to India), bringing core concepts such as the principle of self-determination (p. 366). In Volume 4, we find a similar balance of theory, definitions, and examples in the chapter on “Reparation”, understood as the “compensation for war damage owed by the aggressor” (volume 4, p. 330). This awareness brings in the mechanisms of a “right to remedy” (volume 4, p. 331) and the need to consider “the victim’s perspective” (volume 4, p. 338).

Some of the contributors of this Encyclopedia can sometimes criticize Human Rights advocates and world organisations, for instance in the chapter on NATO, which argues that the NATO bombings against Serb resistance in 1999 “resulted in an additional human rights crisis, as the Serb military forvced nearly 1 million people out of their homes and into neighboring Albania and Macedonia” (volume 4, p. 121). Obviously, the most rewarding entries discuss an idea rather than just a person or a country, for example this chapter on the “Demise of Soviet Communism”, which highlights the construction of an European identity around the idea of human rights during the 1970s”, leading to create what was coined by Daniel C. Thomas in 2001 as “The Helsinki Effect”: a “diplomatic dialogue between the Atlantic democracies and the Soviet bloc that encouraged dissidents to adopt the language of Human Rights in their confrontations with the authorities” (volume 4, p. 505). In other words, Human Rights gave an universal legitimacy for opponents to the Soviet regime, from the 1970s until the Gorbatchev years.

In sum, this immense Encyclopedia of Human Rights is truly a tour de force achieved by Professor David Forsythe’s group of contributors and Oxford University Press. It won the 2010 “Dartmouth Medal” given by the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) for “a reference work of outstanding quality and significance”. This price was well deserved. Most contributors avoid the easy temptation to focus only on law, legislations, and courts, in order to give a wider, interdisciplinary spectrum. It shall obviously serve as a perfect entry point for any research related to Human Rights Studies.

6. Conclusion

Research in Human Rights studies is interdisciplinary in essence and often carries a strong political dimension. Political scientists and sociologists should be among the frontline scholars who give leadership and directions to this continuously renewed field. All titles except The Politics of Human Rights must be seen as reference books, and therefore being essential for university libraries.