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  • Human Rights and Southern Realities
  • Tamara Relis (bio)
Human Rights, Southern Voices: Francis Deng, Abdullahi An-Na'im, Yash Ghai, Upendra Baxi (William Twining ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009) 248 pages, ISBN 9780521130264 and
Helen M. Stacy , Human Rights for the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture (Stanford Univ. Press, 2009) 280 pages, ISBN 9780804760959.

I. Introduction

The proliferation of international human rights treaties, committees, and courts, and the development of human rights norms and standards over the last sixty years represent immense achievement. International human rights laws and principles are now asserted throughout the world by individuals [End Page 509] of many cultures and traditions. Yet, at the same time human rights ideas continue to have difficulty in manifesting their relevance in the daily lives of those who are geographically and culturally distant from international institutions.1 Thus, the international human rights regime has arguably reached a juncture that demands a reoriented view responding to the disparities between human rights laws and principles on the one hand, and realities on the ground for many of the subjects of human rights on the other.2 While scholars have noted this discontinuity, particularly for those in the global South, few have attempted to realistically respond to this. Two new books—William Twining's Human Rights, Southern Voices: Francis Deng, Abdullahi An-Na'im, Yash Ghai, Upendra Baxi, (Southern Voices) and Helen Stacy's Human Rights for the 21st Century (21st Century)—address aspects of this paradox, and lay the foundations for exciting changes in the international human rights regime in the twenty-first century.

Southern Voices is unique in that it provides important perspectives from four renowned non-Western legal scholars—Deng (Sudan), An-Na'im (Northern Sudan), Ghai (Kenya), and Baxi (India). The authors offer timely insight into societies and cultures of the global South in terms of their interests, concerns, and perspectives on human rights. The authors are realistic about the obstacles involved in reconciling the discourse of human rights with many of the practices relating to human rights issues around the globe. Yet, they provide concrete advice on how to advance towards realizing the vision of international human rights. Their insights highlight the cosmopolitan reality of the current human rights regime. They also underscore the need for greater incorporation of Southern views and traditions into the discourses on human rights within any legitimate international order.3

21st Century addresses the main critiques of international human rights, specifically cultural pluralism, sovereignty and civil society. The book additionally proposes the development of a hybrid regional human rights court system, interstitially positioned between international human rights institutions and national courts. Such regional courts, Stacy argues, respond to the issue of the universality of human rights, as their unique position allows them to integrate international treaty principles with the realities of cultural pluralism and diverse local practices. The hybrid regional courts would simultaneously promote and improve human rights norms across cultures and political and social orders, while honoring social, cultural, and religious values and mediating these different values through principles and process.4 [End Page 510]

This essay provides a critical account of some important remaining gaps in the literature on international human rights theory and practice. It argues that relatively little scholarship, including both reviewed books in their discussions on human rights praxis, grounds its analysis in the discourse of the subjects of international human rights law, particularly those people actually involved in human rights violations in the developing world. This is notwithstanding the fact that a main function of the international human rights movement is to give voice and power to those oppressed. Further, the meaning of human rights must be grounded in local culture at grassroots levels. Top-down textual and theoretical analyses relating to human rights practice cannot adequately capture the textured realities and complexity of factors involved. Consequently, bottom-up perspectives from local actors must be incorporated to additionally inform and possibly reframe macro-level scholarly conversations on human rights as well as policies aimed at improving respect for human rights at grassroots levels.

Given that the "global south" is extremely diverse, questions such as, "What are victims' and legal actors' conceptions and expectations of human rights...


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