publisher colophon
Reviewed by:
William Sweet, editor. Philosophical Theory and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights University of Ottawa Press. viii, 242. $24.95

More than fifty years have passed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (hereinafter 'UDHR') in 1948. Philosophical Theory and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights poses questions about the impact and legacy of the UDHR: 'What do we make of "human rights" more than half a century after the Universal Declaration - a declaration for which many, like [Jacques] Maritain, had so much hope? 'How does the [End Page 320] contemporary practice of rights fit with traditional theories of rights? What has been the effect of political and legal instruments such as the UHDR? What have events of the recent past shown us about these theories and declarations?'

The UDHR, the first document to enumerate a set of globally recognized rights, marked a watershed in the internationalization of human rights, which were previously protected under national law. The essays extend beyond the scope of philosophical theory and the foundations of human rights, as the title would suggest, to questions of implementation and protection of these rights, a challenge that remains more than fifty years after the creation of the UDHR. The contributions to this volume are divided into three sections that address concepts of human rights, the UDHR's role in articulating and protecting human rights, and the challenges to the theory and application of human rights that have emerged since the UDHR.

There is significant overlap among these three sections, and the questions of justification for human rights, or at least for particular conceptions of rights, never lie far beneath the surface. Additionally, three major themes cut across these three sections. One is on the question of the adequacy of consensus as a foundation for human rights. While consensus may treat certain practices as legitimate - such as slavery and colonialism - that later become discredited, we may also want to protect other rights - such as gender equality - that do not enjoy universal consensus. Howard P. Kainz's chapter rejects this consensus approach and grounds human rights in a more universalist foundation, a Thomistic conception of human nature. On the other hand, those more sympathetic to dialogic or discourse ethics see consensus itself as the basis for ethical norms. In his chapter, Bradley R. Munro describes the process of reaching consensus on the UDHR from within divergent ethical traditions. A second theme that cuts across many of the essays in this volume is the contribution of French philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of the principal architects of the UDHR, to the theory of human rights. A third focus of this volume is the impact of the UDHR on Canada's legal system. Jack Iwanicki examines the use of the UDHR and other international human rights treaties in decisions issued by the Canadian Supreme Court, while Paul Groarke and J.L.A. West address the liberal-communitarian debate in the context of the Canadian constitutional regime, arguing that a Thomistic model of the common good can provide a resolution to this divide by incorporating elements of the individual good.

These common threads running through the book should not obscure the topical and philosophical diversity of the essays in this volume. Aside from the major themes mentioned above, other essays cover such topics as indigenous claims to land ownership, genocide in Rwanda, and women's rights. The approaches that the authors apply and evaluate include feminist theory, liberal models of rights, and virtue theory. The wide-ranging [End Page 321] discussion of the UDHR, and theories of rights more broadly, make Philosophical Theory and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights an excellent sampling of human rights scholarship. In addition, the book provides a clear picture of remaining philosophical and practical challenges more than fifty years after United Nations General Assembly's adoption of the Universal Declaration.

Amy E. Eckert

Amy E. Eckert, Department of Philosophy, Denver University

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