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Book TitleHuman Rights for the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture
Book AuthorStacy, Helen M.
Bibliographic InformationStanford University Press, 2009, Pages : Pp. 260, $21.95, ISBN 9780804760959

Review Title
Reviewer(s) Cooley, Amanda H.

Short review

Helen M. Stacy. Human Rights for the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press: 2009. Pp. 260. Paper $21.95. ISBN: 9780804760959.


Reviewed by Amanda Harmon Cooley, South Texas College of Law.



In Human Rights for the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture, Helen M. Stacy provides an in-depth discussion of the growth of international human rights law, the resulting development of three main critiques of international human rights law, and a counter-critique to these opponents of the current status of this area of law. The volume begins by highlighting the paradoxical nature of human rights as the rule of law in its various manifestations since the end of World War II. This is the era that Stacy delineates as being especially critical given the exponential adoption of human rights treaties and declarations during these years despite the concurrent exponential numbers of civil wars, casualties, displacements, and other human rights violations. From there, Stacy dissects the three main oppositional perspectives of international human rights systems, using the banners of sovereignty, civil society, and multiculturalism. The sovereignty critique carries with it the overriding “concern that international human rights is either powerless rhetoric in the face of national interests or perhaps an excuse for colonial or imperial projects that jeopardize the integrity and autonomy of individual nation-states” (at 29). The civil society critique asserts the “notion that nongovernmental actors—whether nonprofit advocacy groups or corporations—are better placed, more effective, and more relevant to addressing human rights issues than are laws or legal institutions” (at 29). Finally, the multicultural critique argues “that any attempt to institutionalize international standards in a multicultural world is philosophically flawed and culturally divisive” (at 8).


Following a synopsis of these critiques in the introductory chapter, Stacy posits her underlying foundational thesis, claiming that “none of [these critiques] on its own offers a full account that encompasses law, society, and politics in philosophical history. . . . once these developments are disentangled from their history and their ideology, key elements of the international human rights systems are more visible” (at 13). With this structural underpinning in place, the volume then proceeds to trace the origins of human rights, asserting that the first global human rights movement was the slow abolition of legalized slavery from the world. The chapter continues by outlining other philosophical, social, and legal aspects of human rights in national and international contexts. This timeline reaches its terminus in analyzing the current status of international human rights, which, in part, has been transformed through the process of global economization. The chronological approach to the developments within international human rights remains relevant throughout the remainder of the book as Stacy takes on each of the major critiques of this area of law. This approach acquires especial significance as the author supplements many of her arguments with powerful examples of human rights atrocities, problems, and complications in signatory countries to many of the United Nations human rights conventions and declarations; these examples range from the incidents examined in the trial of former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, to the criminal indictment of an Ethiopian man in the United States for the commission of female genital cutting of his two-year-old daughter to the suppression of the independent judiciary in Pakistan.       


As a precursor to the three chapters dedicated to the analysis and deconstruction of the sovereignty, civil society, and multicultural critiques, Stacy provides context to the institutionalization of human rights in the book’s second chapter. The author proffers a comprehensive examination of the advantages and disadvantages of the legal apparatuses of the current international human rights system, which she claims consist primarily of criminal courts and treaties. Subsequently, Stacy argues that hybrid regional human rights courts and tribunals, which “apply international standards within national courts and [which are] comprised of a mixture of domestic and international judges” (at 67), are a better alternative than the existing system of criminal courts and international treaties to address international human rights violations. Ultimately, in this chapter, Stacy asserts that hybrid regional human rights courts, which “apply the jurisprudential idea of individual responsibility for human rights while acknowledging different national institutions and different cultures” (at 67), are the most promising model for human rights institutions. This central thesis is returned to often in the subsequent chapters where the history and foundations of each critique of international human rights are outlined; these notions are scrutinized; and the key tenets of each critique are given critical reflection and are often refuted.


Specifically, Stacy’s response to the sovereignty critique is that “sovereignty should be reconceived as a conditional entitlement of a government—that a government is exempted from international interference so long as it cares adequately for the human rights of its citizens” (at 30). The author’s argument here is that the Kantian ideal of “rightful rule and reason” sovereignty, which undergirds so much of international law, is, in fact, a fiction as “[g]overnments are often the worst violators of human rights” (at 78). With respect to the civil society perspective, which asserts that the influence of NGOs, trade conditions, and treaties “are powerful enough to shrink or even displace courts” (at 114), Stacy counters that hybrid regional human rights courts are now needed more than ever as they can respond to the demands of these influences, but scrutinize their actions as well. Finally, the author’s “response to the multicultural critique is . . . that the human rights vision of regional human rights courts can be a credible part of legal internationalism because courts are uniquely equipped to broker different cultural values through principles and process” (at 32). Clearly, the consistent theme throughout each of these deconstructions is the return to the author’s reformative call for the use of hybrid regional human rights courts as a means to end the criticisms of international human rights institutions in their present state, as these courts “can help reduce philosophical disagreements about international rights norms, which may increase compliance by states [,]. . . are closer than international bodies to the experiences of people in the jurisdiction and are uniquely placed to assess local human rights needs” (at 169). This theme is illustrative of the author’s aim—“to see an increase in the potency of law when it is deployed by making the law credible and relevant to those who use it” (at 173). Clearly, this is an important and valuable goal for individuals throughout the world.


This volume is a noteworthy contribution to the field of international human rights law as it stakes out novel territory in its advocacy for increased use of hybrid courts, which are relatively new creations within the timeline of international human rights. Stacy’s analysis and evaluation of the three dominant critiques of the current status of international human rights law are innovative and do much to answer the standard critiques offered by other scholars and policymakers in the field. What makes this work interesting is the ease with which it draws from the Kantian ethical tradition, which links it to much work in moral and political philosophy of the past decades. Given the gravity of the issues in the debate and safeguarding of international human rights, this is a vitally important book for governmental and NGO leaders, legal theorists and advocates, and academics. Unfortunately, many of these stakeholders who ascribe to the sovereignty, civil society, or multiculturalist critiques may be too attached to these ideologies to be convinced by Stacy’s argument, analysis, and calls for legal and political reform. Yet, without such openness to new ideas, progress towards greater protection of human rights will remain difficult. Hopefully, Human Rights for the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture will provide another starting point to continue the conversation in this important area of legal, ethical, and moral theory and practice.