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Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 579-582

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Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the European Convention. By A. W. Brian Simpson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xiv + 1162 pp. $85.00 (cloth).

Human rights have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts during the last decade. The end of the Cold War ushered in an era of new instability that, paradoxically, made the recourse to human rights as the definitive yardstick of international relations both more urgent and less complicated. The Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans triggered a humanitarian intervention culminating in Slobodan Milosevic's extradition to The Hague where the former autocrat is currently facing his judges. Ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet escaped justice only by a whisker when the British home secretary, after long-drawn-out proceedings and on the grounds of ill health, eventually refused to hand him over to Spain where he had been indicted for severe human [End Page 579] rights abuses during his rule in Chile. To give but one more example, the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide are brought to book before a special United Nations tribunal in Arusha. In what amounts to a study of unintended consequences, Brian Simpson sheds some intriguing light on how the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights came into existence and why the end of the British Empire played a pivotal role in that process.

As the exhausted nations were still reeling from the horrors of World War II, a small but vocal group of human rights idealists and distinguished lawyers prodded governments of the victorious states to follow up their lofty humanitarian declarations with concrete actions. There were, at the time, few precedents to look to. After World War I, the measures taken to protect minorities in central and eastern Europe came closest to establishing safeguards against the (not only domestically) disruptive effects of human rights violations. But then, all these well-meaning mechanisms could not prevent the Versailles order from falling victim to the onslaught of Nazism. In the aftermath of Hitler's war, Britain was in the unenviable position of, on the one hand, sincerely cherishing the cause of human rights but, on the other, appearing less than whole-heartedly devoted to seeing their implementation through up to the hilt. The reason for this ambiguous attitude was basically twofold. The common-law tradition fell foul of any attempts to erect an entirely novel legal edifice. Britain regarded itself as the fount of the rule of law and therefore had no time for outlandish schemes to entrust its supervision to foreign institutions. At the end of the day, the belief in Dicey's much vaunted dictum that the ultimate guarantee of rights was the respect they commanded in society at large threatened to pour cold water on any projects to make human rights the linchpin of the new world order. The second sticking point was the departmental infighting caused by differing opinions on the uses human rights should be put to.Whereas the Foreign Office hoped to employ an international declaration to highlight the abject human rights record of the Soviet bloc, the Colonial Office saw this strategy sooner or later come home to roost, for, admirable though the metropolitan balance-sheet may look, Britain would always be vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy, unless it was willing to extend human rights provisions to its dependencies. Since the colonies were thought—erroneously as it turned out—to be generations away from attaining independence, Britain could not underwrite a human rights system that posited equal conditions for mankind despite the risibly huge gap that separated the nations in different hemispheres.

However, the "moving frontiers" (Norman Bentwich) of international [End Page 580] law reached the British shores when the Council of Europe took up the question of human rights. Not only did the Truman administration advocate closer ties between the quarrelsome European nations as a viable bulwark against Soviet expansionism, in Britain itself there were prominent politicians, notably Winston...


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