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  • International Human Rights: A Comprehensive Introduction
  • Safia Swimelar (bio)
Michael Haas, International Human Rights: A Comprehensive Introduction (Routledge 2008), 484 pages, plus index, ISBN 9780415774550.

Michael Haas’ recent book, International Human Rights, aims high in providing a comprehensive introduction to the study of international human rights. He succeeds with this volume, which provides an objective, fact-based, and inter-disciplinary introduction to the topic, well suited for undergraduate students and instructors looking for a background and reference type text. He covers a variety of topics, from philosophical origins, history, and international law to quantitative findings, international and regional regimes, and coverage of new dimensions such as gay rights, animal rights, and environmental concerns. As a political scientist and human rights activist, Professor Haas has published two other books related to human rights.1 It is organized and laid out in an accessible way with an abundance of charts, pull-out text boxes, case studies, and discussion questions. Haas states about his book: “today, a textbook on the subject can only provide a foundation or introduction to a vast realm of contemporary reality,” thus his volume “seeks to identify the basic parameters of international human rights,”2 which his book successfully does. He also states a practical goal of the text as an aid to activists who want to know how to protect their and others’ rights. Readers looking for a book that provides a conceptual, analytical, and/or international relations introductory framework to international human rights, however, would be better served by texts such as Jack Donnelly’s International Human Rights or David P. Forsythe’s Human Rights and International Relations.3

Haas’ International Human Rights comprehensively addresses the basic questions that students and scholars of human rights are interested in: the philosophical and historical bases for human rights4; elaborations on different types of rights—e.g. civil, political, social, economic, and cultural—in addition to international humanitarian law5; empirical findings from quantitative research on human rights6; the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations’ work toward human rights7; American, European, and Third World approaches to human rights8; and last, a chapter not typical in most other human rights texts on the new dimensions and challenges of gay rights, animal rights, and the environment.

In the philosophical section, Haas implicitly claims that human rights (or at least ideas about human rights but the distinction is not clear) have universal origins in all major religions and philosophies. For example, Haas presents a [End Page 821] chart called “early documents of human rights,” where he lists, inter alia, the Code of Hammurabi, the Torah, the Christian Gospel, the Constitution of Medina, and the Magna Carta. In examining the philosophical origins, the text catalogs major secular thinkers and their principal contributions to human rights, such as Aristotle (liberty), Hobbes (social contract for security), Kant (self-determination), Jefferson (religious toleration), Mill (freedom of speech et al.), and Marx (workers’ rights). Haas further examines but does not really compare or analyze what he calls “metaphilosophical justifications for human rights,” such as natural law, social contract theory, rationalism, Marxism, and social democratic theory. Finally, this chapter takes an interesting turn by briefly identifying metaphilosophical opponents to human rights, such as traditionalism and social Darwinism.

The historical chapters help the reader get a sense of the large and small events that contributed to social and institutional movements toward greater human rights or toward restricting others’ rights. The crucial pre-twentieth century advances are well-covered, such as the movements for abolition, women’s suffrage, trade union/labor rights, humane warfare, and religious freedom. The “contemporary basis” for human rights is examined in its own chapter that aims to illustrate how the fits and starts of human rights before World War II gave way to a multitude of new agreements, concepts, and institutions that made human rights more fundamental to international relations. The topics covered in this chapter include the Nuremburg war crimes trials, the global anti-apartheid movement, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the end of the Cold War. The chapter also briefly covers the role of nongovernmental organizations and international law.

These chapters (like all in the...


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