Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 514-517
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Human Rights and Revolutions
Human Rights and Revolutions. Edited by JEFFREY N. WASSERSTROM, LYNN HUNT, AND MARILYN B. YOUNG. Boston: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Pp. xii + 272. $19.95 (paper).
This is a fine collection of thirteen essays on human rights, each of which can stand on its own, and each author displays impeccable credentials. Together, they have much to offer, when read carefully, as they address the issue in wide-ranging areas—from China, Africa, Vietnam, the early United States and England, the Muslim world, to Kosovo. They also cover a lot of historical ground, including the English, American, French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. To a casual reader, [End Page 514] however, the essays appear to be distinctly unrelated except that they share the same book title, Human Rights and Revolutions.
To varying degrees, the essays all touch on certain paradoxes surrounding the subject of human rights that universalism and local nationalism can create. But, the greatest difficulty for the reader is precisely the volume's lack of a coherent overarching framework, not even an identified list of topics to be addressed from different angles and perspectives. The reader looks in vain even for an explanation (if a rationale is too much to ask for) as to why these disparate essays are selected and arranged in the way they are.
As co-editor Young is fast to point out in the Preface, this is not necessarily a drawback, but possibly a virtue. The co-editors, while aware of the vast range of topics to be addressed, chose not to impose a "uniformity in the approaches taken by individual authors." Hence, the result is this collection of loosely related essays that leaves the reader perplexed as to the logical connections between human rights and "revolutions," as the title has it.
True, an alert reader, searching carefully, will find references to certain possible inherent linkages. Timothy McDaniel, for one, notes eloquently: "Revolutions always threaten human rights, because they do not envision people as individuals but only as ideologically defined categories" (p. 217). But he is commenting on the "Strange Career of Radical Islam," and it comes in the last chapter. The point deserves to be enunciated in a purposive definition of human rights, revolutions, and their interconnections in an overarching theoretical chapter for the entire volume, which is missing.
Even if the reader retroactively takes McDaniel's formulation as a definitive explication of the human rights revolution linkage for the entire volume, it does not answer the intriguing, but unavoidable, question as to why the concept of "revolutions" subsumes so many varied phenomena. Under this concept, true revolutions or civil wars (dealt with in chapters 2 through 6), colonialism (7 and 8), dictatorships (9 and 20), Islamic radicalism (chapter 13), and the conflicts in Kosovo (chapters 11 and 12) were indiscriminately lumped together—without so much as a hint at explanation. At the risk of appearing to be splitting hairs, one could question whether the Kosovo case was not one that posed severe threats to "human security," and a new but totally different concept, as opposed to human rights.
Methodological questions aside, the book does offer fresh insights on the question of human rights, provided that the reader gleans carefully from the pages. One example is on colonialism as another source [End Page 515] of the denial of human rights. Under the British Empire, for instance, there was no assumption that Africans were eligible for citizenship nor entitled to all its rights. Although the French Constitution of 1946 proclaimed all former subjects of the French empire citizens, the full rights of citizens continued to elude Africans (Florence Bernault's chapter 8). The "stunted" life under French colonial rule even led to a stunted human rights record in postcolonial Vietnam and continued to haunt modern New Caledonia (Alexander Woodside's chapter 7 and Alice Bullard's chapter 5). The implicit link between citizenship and human rights—let us call it the "citizenship link"—as can be extrapolated from these instances, is clearly a refreshing...