The din is deafening these days: The Post-9/11 Paradigm. Free-market mechanisms. Climate change controversies. If it doesn’t send you into early cynicism, it will wear you into apathy. Guantanamo. Katrina. Iraq. My anxiety is running high, and my Ritalin is running low.
Thankfully, The Concise Guide to Global Human Rights offers some focus. It’s a daunting endeavour, but Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy, professors in Literary Studies at the University of Guelph, manage to clear a 268-page path through an overwhelming volume of human rights activity and ideas. Although it is concise, the book is not a simple patchwork of reductions or summaries. In fact, the authors warn against compressing important issues into easily digestible chips of rhetoric. The book itself doesn’t preach or compete with existing discourse. Instead, it draws from a wide-range of examples – from the chemical disaster in Bhopal to the Zapatistas’ post-modern media war – in order to provide a context for human rights in the 21st century. As a guide, this book weaves a thoughtful foundation for understanding human rights culture. It also draws extensively on case examples to ground theory in practice.
While philosophy is used to scrutinize the fundamental concepts of human rights in a theoretical realm, the authors contend that it is in reality that these rights must be most diligently examined. In the face of climate change, water shortages and pollution, the grounding of human rights requires an evaluation of the inextricable relationship between nature and culture. In the prologue to The Concise Guide, Vandana Shiva acknowledges that human rights stem from “our human duties to protect the Earth and all her beings.” The notion of respect and inclusivity runs through the book as a reminder that ecological justice and social justice share deep conceptual roots and are inseparable in practice.
For indigenous populations, subsistence farmers and others, environmental rights and human rights are more clearly unified than for those of us who experience nature mainly through our screen-savers. The Concise Guide demonstrates that diverse ways of knowing, perceiving and expressing life must come together through art, story and testimonial if they are to infiltrate the mainstreams of legal and political power.
To address global inequality, the authors acknowledge that they “grappled with the use of terms designating geopolitical regions and decided to use both conventional language reflective of existent mindsets, as well as visionary language that strives to free us from these mindsets.” As a result, the terms “first world,”“developed world,”“minority world” and “over-developed world” are synonymous in everything but tone. The effect is a welcome dissonance of voice that reflects a variety of perspec- tives; difference permeates both rights discourse and the book itself.
Although governments are often considered to be major rights violators, the authors point out that the emergence of corporate rights increasingly imperils human rights around the world. A wide range of examples (such as Ethyl Corp’s successful law suit against the Canadian government for banning a toxic fuel additive) demonstrates how clauses such as NAFTA’s infamous Chapter 11 privilege “the right to earn” over everything else. In addition, the authors warn that even well-intentioned non-governmental organizations may internalize market-focused paradigms that commodify human and environmental rights.
Citing the Genuine Progress Index as a more humane system of measurement than the Gross Domestic Product, the authors point out that “in the end, no amount of money will save the few wealthy pockets of population once our global life-support system is exhausted, and unable to provide clean air, water, and food. That is the true bottom line.”
Another part of the slippery slope to human rights abuses occurs when indi- viduals relinquish their own rights; for example, when one rejects the right to privacy by accepting increased surveillance during this “war on terror.” Likewise, the authors suggest that wealthy executives who work 60 hours a week to “get ahead” are sacrificing personal rights for the corporate good. The book explores global perceptions of rights to question the role of humanitarian intervention and how rights can be activated and deactivated across cultures.
Calm and direct even in the depths of the most horrifying stories of, for example, Shell’s crimes in Nigeria or of rape camps in Darfur, Fischlin and Nandorfy resist leading the reader into the emotion of their powerful examples. Instead, they maintain an objective distance in order to consider the greater forces and context that permit such atrocities to take place. With suggestions for improving global human rights and introductions to inspiring individuals along the way, The Concise Guide to Human Rights is an important book. Readers will emerge with a renewed sense of engagement with the most pressing human rights issues of our time.
Erin Elliott is on staff with Alternatives Journal.