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Human Rights Quarterly 25.2 (2003) 563-566
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Human Rights, An Interdisciplinary Approach by Michael Freeman, Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA, Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2002) 201 pp.
Michael Freeman teaches political theory in the multi-disciplinary program of the Human Rights Center at the University of Essex. His new book, Human Rights, An Interdisciplinary Approach is published in Polity's "Key Concept" series. Paperbacks in the series run about 200 pages, each serving as lively and appealing introductions for college students and the general reader regarding important ideas about our contemporary world: fundamentalism, nationalism, power, etc. With carefully edited precision and clarity, each of these little books takes on the challenging task of acquainting the reader with seminal ideas, their conceptual development, related scholarly literature and major debates linked to deeply rooted topics of concern today. Consistent with the design of the series, Michael Freeman presents a critical tour of interdisciplinary approaches to human rights.
Instructors searching for a well-written introduction to human rights would make a good choice with Freeman's Human Rights, An Interdisciplinary Approach. The book is attentive to most of the contributions made by various academic disciplines outside of legal studies. It is sufficiently wide-ranging to satisfy the needs of most humanities and behavioral sciences courses and in those fora it would ably serve to demonstrate the alluring complexity and increasing coherence of the mosaic of human rights scholarship.
Freeman's treatment is commendable in pulling together the results of research and writing in many fields. This is not his only objective. His book is also pedagogically successful because the author's critical but non-dogmatic comments along the way can readily be drawn upon by instructors to prompt classroom discussion. For example, the author asks us to consider the conceptual difficulties in validating the human rights of freedom of religion when applied to religious groups that feel duty-bound to forbid members to change religions. Such "problems of compossibility" need careful analysis so as to avoid confusion. Conceptual difficulties arise elsewhere, Freeman explains, as with "problems of rights inflation" and the ironies associated with "rights in conflict." These puzzles are introduced in the first chapter, not to confuse, but to confirm that shrinking from conceptual difficulties does not benefit the cause of human rights.
The second and third chapters are historically oriented, discussing the ways history throws light on contending concepts of human rights, from the works of Locke to Burke, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Post-1945 norm-setting developments in the United Nations are set out, relying on Morsink's meticulously researched history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All too brief for students of international law and organization, but an essential base to touch for Freemen's treatment is the formulation of UN treaties, procedures and politics, capped off with a passing introduction to the new institutions of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Here the beginning student is introduced to "regimes analysis" and its potential to further the cause of evaluating the [End Page 563] performance of the UN human rights regime. While some will consider the treatment in these chapters as sketchy, it must be remembered that Freeman's is a prefatory introduction to the global conversation now flourishing among scholars in many fields. For those who wish more, a substantial bibliography invites further reading. For graduate students looking for a guide to their mandatory literature-searching tasks, the book is "pay-dirt."
Chapter 4 on human rights theory nicely introduces the reader to the perspectives of some leading present-day scholars (Donnelly, Nussbaum, Walzer, Rawls, Shue, etc.). The discussion of theory leads naturally (in chapter 5) into a survey of the role of the social sciences. The contributions to human rights scholarship and our understanding of human rights dynamics in the contemporary world are identified in terms of leading work in the fields of political science, sociology, psychology, anthology, and international relations. Each is succinctly summarized and critically assessed. Freeman avoids moribund...