book review: The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights Law
The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights Law
Conor Gearty and Costas Douzinas (eds)
Cambridge University Press (2012)
Book length: 355 pages / Price: £25.99
With a memorable book launch at Birkbeck College, University of London earlier this year, this book has the backing of highly experienced jurists and appears destined to be something both great and different within the field of human rights law. Coner Gearty and Costas Douzinas have chosen the topics contained within this book based on a way that provides it with a unique style. The variety of chapters does not necessarily follow the trend of explaining each of the rights as they are listed in the European Convention.
The book is aimed at a broad audience ranging from undergrads, or members of the public that hold a general interest, to those who are within various levels of the legal profession and academia. Consequently, the style appealing to readers interested in the general field of human rights but do not necessarily want to buy a dense textbook. The editors have ensured that regardless of whether the book is being used within or outside an academic context, terms and definitions are clearly laid out and not loaded with difficult legalistic phrases. In addition, the diverse range of topics covered makes it unique to most standard text books, most which contain similar content on the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. Particularly, chapters bypass more basic understandings of commonly explored themes.
The cover of the book is potentially revealing by itself. The cover picture is a copy of ‘The Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ found in the bankruptcy court in Holland. Both editors have agreed that the illustration can be contextualized in the realm with human rights, and particularly attempts to restrict or repeat the Human Rights Act 1998. This could very well spell the potential that human rights could once again be referred to as ‘persuasive but not binding’ by the courts, and devolve into the argument of who deserves such rights. Specifically, the cover is an ideal reflection of the vulnerability of human rights, a common theme explored within this book.
The volume is split into four parts: ‘All Kinds of Everyone’, ‘Interconnections’, ‘Platforms’, and ‘Pressures’. In the first part, articles written by Anna Grear, Gerard Quinn with Anna Arstein-Kerslake, and Costas Douzinas appear to consider and support the notion that human rights are a ‘pure form’ universal for everybody, regardless of any other factor. The idea that everyone has rights which are to be respected.
The second part of the book, by Florian Hoffmann, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Gerry Simpson, Simon Chesterman, and Upendra Baxi, is aimed at exploring connections between human rights and times of conflicts. Hoffmann, in particular, refers to both the Cold War and the falling of the Berlin Wall in contrasting the power of human rights against inequality. In addition, questions are raised whether it is right to use either violence or the threat of violence in order to bring supressed populations human rights. Articles in this part also consider the argument on how to punish those who have breached human rights, using the Nuremburg trials after the collapse of Nazi Germany as an example. The dilemma remains as to the punishment of those following Hitler’s regime as it was enshrined in law, as explored in chapter six of this book.
The third part of the book considers the arguments concerning the platforms for human rights. Chaloka Beyani, Patrick Hanafin, Conor Gearty, Chris Himsworth, and Gerd Oberleitner discuss here how human rights have been used, and overused, by states. Particularly, it is mentioned how some rights appear to be more ‘fashionable’ than others. In addition, potential problems are discussed concerning governments actions on human rights legislation, especially in the context of its reduction. Extremist parties are especially singled out to explore the potential reduction of human rights in democratic states. Evidently, there is a fine line that is to be balanced when considering human rights; the aim is to balance the right to bring a case, but also ensure that the value of human rights is not devalued.
The fourth and final part of this book considers the various degrees of pressure that surround human rights, and whether treaties and legislation do enough to make a difference to those suffering from human rights violations. With contributions from Margot E Salomon, Martin Scheinin, Manfred Nowak, and Samuel Moyn, the articles also attempt to look at this issue within a contemporary framework. Nowak, for example, considers the pressure, political and otherwise, on tackling torture and ill treatment; in addition are the definitions of what constitute torture. Although most countries do not use commonly associated methods of torture in criminal cases, there are clear arguments raised that the amount of time a person is in custody, or the length of time a case can take to get to court, could very well amount to torture as well.
Overall the book presents excellent and intellectually stimulating articles that look at human rights from a range of different perspectives. The chapters are authoritative and easily readable with concise arguments unburdened by complex legal language. This is especially important for students and general readers aiming to gain some measure of understanding in the subject, without delving into its more complex underpinnings.
The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights Law is an extremely well-written and intellectually stimulating book for anyone interested in human rights law.