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Book Review


Ishay, Micheline R. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004). 450 pp, $24.95.

     "We are all historians of human rights," claimed Linda Kerber, former president of the American Historical Association, in the October 2006 issue of the AHA's newsletter Perspectives. Assessing the extent of and constraints upon human freedom and possibilities has certainly been an implicit theme of the modern historical profession as defined in the West—whether liberal, Marxist, post-structuralist, or other. Micheline Ishay has produced a survey that explicitly examines human rights as a central dynamic of human history whose origins are discernible in the earliest periods of human history but whose resonance has been felt most powerfully in recent centuries. While Ishay admirably helps to set present-day challenges to and prospects for human rights in a historical perspective, world historians will be disappointed in the opportunities missed for making that perspective more global in context.

     Ishay's first major feat is in organizing such a sprawling topic coherently and accessibly. She finds a ready-made organizing principle in the one articulated by René Cassin, who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 with an emphasis on four fundamental themes: dignity, liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Moreover, Ishay argues, these themes not only frame specific sections of the Declaration itself, they can also be understood historically as "generations" of rights that responded to emerging conditions in various periods. Ishay acknowledges that not all groups gained the benefits of these rights as one period flowed into another. Emphasizing the fragmented, staggering manner in which rights became acquired, each of the first five chapters concludes with reflections upon the question, "Human Rights for Whom?" These reflections remind us that attitudes about class, gender, race, and other features of identity kept the extension of rights from being a steady progression.

     The first chapter traces how diverse religious and ethical traditions from the pre-modern era contributed to identifying a set of categories that served as a platform for modern considerations of human rights. Here Ishay also supports the first of six assertions meant to dispel specific misconceptions about human rights—this one about the seemingly secular discourse of modern human rights, whose origins, she contends, lay deeply rooted in the world's religious traditions. She regards this as an important point to stress in the wake of the events of 9/11, which convinced some that traditional religious values are fundamentally antithetical and hostile to the secular and universalizing tendencies of modern human rights concerns. Highlighted in this chapter are notions drawn from the Old and New Testament biblical traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism, the Stoic ethics of the Greeks and Romans, Confucian values, and Islam. Consequently, it is the most "global" chapter in the book, historically speaking.

     The second chapter addresses how such attributes of the emerging modern world as science, mercantilism, expanding global encounters, and a powerful, restless middle class facilitated the transition to a secular human rights perspective. The Enlightenment in particular promoted this first modern generation of rights, civil and political liberties that included freedom of religion and opinion, the right to life, and the right to private property. Ishay also examines the state's responsibilities in making war as defined by natural law theorists. The focus in this chapter turns decidedly to Europe and America, since Ishay argues, as the second of her assertions, that "our current views of universal rights, wherever in the world it may be voiced, is predominantly European in origin."(5) This is a plausible assertion, but it leads the author to forfeit an opportunity to examine meaningfully how increasing cross-cultural encounters resulted in a syncretic dialogue in which non-Western traditions and perspectives affected Western notions of human nature and consequently human rights.

     The 19th-century age of ideology and industrialization frames the third chapter, where Ishay reminds us of the critical role that socialism in its myriad forms played as a tradition that pushed claims for rights beyond previous borders. Substantial economic and social upheavals were interpreted through the lens of a tradition of rights that had been asserted—if not successfully implemented—since the previous century. Socialists sought not only to expand civil and political rights to include freedom of association (e.g., in unions) and universal suffrage. They also claimed social and economic rights that had been left off the agenda in the previous "generation," rights reflected in 20th-century social welfare policies of many states and enshrined in documents that comprise the present-day human rights system. The human rights abuses associated with communist regimes during the 20th century have left the socialist tradition largely discredited, so this chapter makes a significant contribution to reclaiming socialism's important place in the historical development of human rights. It also demonstrates how human rights claims can come into conflict when the ideological premises upon which they are based are also at odds.

     Nationalism, another ideology that grew powerful in the 19th century, posed a particular dilemma in the history of human rights that Ishay addresses in a fourth assertion: "that demands for cultural rights must always be informed by and checked against a universalist perspective of human rights."(5-6) Nationalists incorporated the rhetoric of rights in their cultural and political claims, creating a third stream alongside the liberal and socialist traditions. Yet nationalism's very nature also intensified the conflict between relativists and universalists, a tension that Ishay points out as evident at least since Herodotus wrote comparatively about cultures. This conflict played a central role in the vast destruction wrought by the 20th century's two world wars as well as its many colonial wars. Attempts to institutionalize human rights occurred in the wake of the two world wars so that by the latter half of the century a global regime of human rights endorsed in such far-reaching statements as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and supported by an apparatus of dedicated international commissions had come about. Even this system reflected the great divide between the different conceptions of human rights that grew out of the 19th century and became wrapped up in the Cold War competition between the superpowers.

     The fourth chapter departs somewhat from the Western-centered perspective that informed the two previous chapters, and the fifth chapter examines the plight of human rights in the context of globalization. The wider global scope that the book takes at this point, however, follows the traditional trajectory of Western Civ texts, where Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific Basin make their appearance as the Western imperial grasp tightens in the late 19th century and releases after the mid-20th. True, Ishay does not claim to offer a "Global History of Human Rights," but this consideration may limit the book's appeal to world historians. A more robust global perspective, for instance, might have more closely analyzed Gandhi's blending of Western human rights ideals and political practices with the ideals of the ancient Indian traditions mentioned in the first chapter. One glaring oversight is the negligible treatment afforded the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa—neither Nelson Mandela nor Desmond Tutu are even mentioned to any meaningful degree. Even conceding the point that the book cannot comprehensively include every human rights campaign (a significant concession in this case), the world historian might again like to learn how indigenous values interacted with Western ideals to achieve a unique approach to human rights. Tutu does this himself in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, a reflection upon his experience on the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee, in which he explains the African ideal of ubuntu and its relevance to Western rights notions, religious and secular. Perhaps others may embrace the framework that Ishay lays out here and apply it to such questions.

     These criticisms do not diminish the overall value of the book, which could be used profitably as an ancillary in Western Civ classes or as the main text in an upper-level undergraduate course that focuses on the history of human rights. Ishay provides dozens of passages of varying lengths throughout to illustrate relevant views and highlight specific documents treated in the chapters that can provide digestible reflection pieces for students in a wide range of courses. Also, the twenty-five pages of references serve as an excellent guide for anyone planning to frame a course around the theme of human rights. Finally, Ishay concludes the book with an excellent chapter that provides a sophisticated assessment of the prospects and problems that human rights confront in today's fluid circumstances. An engaged intellectual, Ishay issues a call to action that emphasizes the need to engage in a sustainable global civil society that will preserve and build upon the human rights traditions achieved over the past centuries. There is more to recommend in this book than this chapter alone—but Ishay's book is worth reading, if only for this chapter alone.


Michael Clinton
Gwynedd-Mercy College


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