In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Reprising Diderot for Human Rights
  • Kerry Bystrom (bio), Audrey R. Chapman (bio), Emma Gilligan (bio), and Richard P. Hiskes (bio)
The Encyclopedia of Human Rights (David P. Forsythe Editor in Chief, Oxford Univ. Press 2009) five volumes, 2672 pages, ISBN 9780195334029.

I. Introduction

The appearance of an encyclopedia in the field of human rights makes a claim about the ontological status of the field and the state of its knowledge. It proclaims "there is indeed a field of knowledge known as human rights, and it is encapsulated within." In the words of the famous eighteenth-century encyclopedist Denis Diderot, "The aim of an encyclopedia is to collect all the knowledge that now lies scattered over the face of the earth, to make known its general structure to the men . . . who will come after us, in order that the labors of past ages may be useful to the ages to come."1 This is an audacious claim, one not diminished by the fact that David Forsythe's Encyclopedia only presents in organized fashion the knowledge of human rights, not, as in the case of Diderot's, all knowledge.

Forsythe's Encylopedia shares with Diderot's the insistence that "man . . . [be given] . . . the same place in our Encyclopedia that he occupies in the universe . . . the center of all that is."2 This is after all, not the Encyclopedia of rights, but of human rights. But this Encyclopedia also seeks to achieve what Diderot's did not, but for which he expressed a fervent desire. As an encyclopedia, Forsythe's strives not for the collecting of all knowledge, but the knowledge of an important moral good or virtue, that of human rights. Such an effort would especially please Diderot, since he admits, "[b]ecause it is at least as important to make men better as it is to make them less ignorant, I should not be at all displeased if someone were to make a collection of all the most striking instances of virtuous behavior."3 The Encyclopedia of Human Rights is, inter alia, such a collection, though it obviously also educates by incorporating much evidence of virtue's opposite.

Spanning five oversized volumes and over 2,600 pages, Forsythe's product is immense and its scholarship impressive. All of its over 325 entries are refereed articles of varying length, including bibliographies, and cover an array of "four major categories of rights: rights, organizations, persons, and situations."4 For scholars of human rights in disciplines ranging from history to politics, humanities, and law—and, significantly, also for those who define themselves interdisciplinarily—the Encyclopedia is not only a reference tool but an essential baseline for research. As Forsythe points out in the [End Page 1018] Introduction, his work contains not only the "definitions, short descriptions and reproduction of documents," available in earlier encyclopediae, but "in-depth expert commentary" as well.5

Forsythe announces that with some exceptions the general focus of the Encyclopedia is from 1945 to the present. While it is true that most scholars date the modern human rights movement roughly the same way, we do take some issue with this short span. Still, one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer number and diversity of the entries that punctuate such a brief history. Certainly one expects the important human rights documents and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to be entered (and they are), but alongside them are included the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices (vol. 3), Reporters Without Borders (vol. 4), and the Limburg Principles on Socioeconomic Rights (vol. 3). Anticipated personal entries Rene Cassin, Richard Goldstone, Pol Pot, and Raphael Lemkin are joined by less well-known, but still significant, contributors to human rights history and practice such as Romeo Dallaire, Bertrand Ramcharan, and Jacobo Timerman.

Nations constitute a significant percentage of the entries as well, but not only the United States, Israel, and Sudan, to name but a few of the clearly germane. They are joined by less obvious entries like Burundi, Eritrea, Liberia, and Palestine. The selection principle governing which nations to be included is inventive and sensitive to a concern regarding potential bias. Rather than focusing solely on individual countries, Forsythe relies on "situations" that merit...


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