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The New Buzzword


Ashwini K. Ray

THE HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS: FROM ANCIENT TIMES TO THE GLOBALISATION ERA
By Micheline R. Ishay
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 458, Rs. 525.00

HUMAN RIGHTS AND HUMANITARIAN LAW: DEVELOPMENTS IN INDIAN AND INTERNATIONAL LAW
By South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 479, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 10 October 2008

Post-Cold War, human rights has emerged as the new buzzword, unleashing around it a global industry consisting of scholarly publications, academic programmes, journalistic potboilers, government-sponsored training institutes, NGOs, and myriad versions of civil society activism. Perilously replicating its postcolonial counterparts around socialism before the collapse of the utopia, it has also spawned its counterfeits. Now triggered by the global funding agencies’ post-dated quest for human security and human development, as a backlash from their Frankensteinian infatuation with the military and bureaucracy as the ‘Vehicle of Third World Modernisation’ through the Cold War, it is anyhow unexceptionable. Except that, any discerning critic has to be now more careful to separate the grain from the chaff to ensure that the normatively attractive ideal is not again hijacked by the spurious and the dregs. By this self-imposed exacting standard, both the books under review pass muster as impeccable.   Micheline Ishay’s book is a meticulously researched comprehensive history of the evolution of the various components of the modern human rights agenda, linking its major philosophical concerns with their respective empirical roots, from Greek and Roman times to the era of globalization when the human rights community is faced with the ‘new challenges of confronting the fundamentalism of the market while simultaneously confronted by the belligerent fundamentalism of religion’, with the spectre of the global ‘invisible hand’ transforming into the controlling ‘iron fist’ looming large against any threat to ‘social order’ of the globalized production process. For the authors of the other book, from the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC), ‘human rights is not merely an academic interest’; hence the book is geared to ‘encourage students to work towards the practical realisation of human rights’, so that the ‘culture of human rights is firmly and visibly embedded in young minds across the country’; it is intended to be ‘a textbook in conformity with UGC course outline’. Both the publications live up to their promise.   Quite self-consciously, Ishay introduces her historical narrative as ‘giving voice to the oppressed’; ‘not written from the vantage point of conquerors and oppressors, it harvests the hopes of victims … follows messengers of hope through the cynicism characterising human tyranny … not the messianic aspiration of a single generation but recognising the dedication of a host of human rights couriers over time’. Despite this avoidable hyperbole at the outset, she is able to substantiate her simple historical conclusion that human ...


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