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Human Rights Quarterly 23.4 (2001) 1114-1115

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Book Review

Responding to Human Rights Violations 1946-1999

Responding to Human Rights Violations 1946-1999, by Katarina Tomasevski (The Hague; Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2000).

What Katarina Tomasevski, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, has set out to do in Responding to Human Rights Violations 1946-1999 is nothing less than to chronicle the entirety of Western responses to human rights violations. The need for a complete accounting such as this becomes ever more evident as one proceeds through this book. Although the author might disagree, at one time there appears to have been a "golden age" of economic sanctions--when a very limited number of states (e.g., South Africa and Chile) were sanctioned for their egregious human rights practices through a truly multilateral effort that was supported by the "victims" these efforts were intended to protect. What has happened is that economic sanctions have become "the knee-jerk" Western response to all sorts of human rights violations [End Page 1114] that, one way or another, somehow capture Western attention--at least for the moment.

What Tomasevski is able to show very effectively in this thorough, detailed and balanced history and analysis is just how arbitrary and self-serving Western "humanitarian" actions, purportedly in defense of "others," have been. In her view, the West has committed any number of wrongs in trying to right the "wrongs" of others.

First, the West has been very sloppy in its designation of what is--or is not--a human rights violation, constantly changing the standards. Most notably, there has been almost no connection between the list of human rights violators compiled by the United Nations human rights machinery (which itself has been internally inconsistent) and those states that have been subjected to Western sanctions.

Second, the West has completely ignored the victims, by maintaining the legal fiction that economic sanctions are against states, but not against the people of those states. Tomasevski devastates this argument by showing that sanctions are based on the "trickle-up" model whereby the citizenry of a targeted country is hit from every side: from the human rights abusing regime at home, but also from the myriad of states that are making individuals pay for the sins of their rulers.

Finally, Tomasevski's analysis excels in showing why economic sanctions are so popular in the West. Not only does the West seize the moral high ground by showing that it is "doing something" about human rights violations in other countries (or at least the ones that it sees--or wishes to see), but the sanctions that we have chosen to apply invariably benefit the West. Thus, rather than targeting foreign trade--which would make the West feel some of sting of the sanctions--what Western states systematically have done is to reduce the amount of foreign aid that they provide to the offending state. In sum, a system has been designed where the West can appear moral and at the same time save itself money.

There are a number of reasons why I read Katarina Tomasevski's scholarship religiously. As in this book, her breadth of coverage is simply something to behold. Providing continuity and coherence to a subject that quite often lacks these qualities is no easy task. In addition, Tomasevski's insights and analysis are unique and invaluable, and nearly every page of this book offers something of this to the reader.

But if I had to choose one reason why I enjoy her writing so much, it is that she writes with such passion and intensity. This book is no diatribe; in fact, quite the opposite is true. However, where Tomasevski has no peer is in maintaining the human dimension to human rights. On one level Responding to Human Rights Violations is a veritable tour de force of much of what has transpired in the field of human rights over the past half century. However, on another level this is a very simple book. But this is a book that makes you question your...


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