"Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference" by Brooke A. Ackerly [Full Text]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 23.4 (Winter 2009)

December 15, 2009

Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference

Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 388 pp., $90 cloth, $32 paper.

Alyssa R. Bernstein (Reviewer)

In a book full of thought-provoking questions for theorists of human rights, Brooke Ackerly presents an "account of the normative legitimacy of human rights" (p. 195) that is distinctive in several respects, most notably in its rejection of common "assumptions about what constitutes a convincing argument or a philosophical justification" (p. 21). Ackerly claims that although her theory is not strictly a philosophical account, it offers to philosophers "an opportunity to consider the normative questions that get tabled when we bracket the politics of knowledge" (p. 36). Instead of engaging in systematic philosophical analysis and argument about human rights questions (such as what human rights are; how they resemble and differ from other kinds of rights; whether and in what sense they are universal; whether and when coercive force can be, and may permissibly be, used internationally to secure them), Ackerly considers how to develop an account of human rights that could be seen as legitimate by all who "have been working to make marginalized people and marginalizing structures visible," including "feminists, colonized, ethnically marginalized, and indigenous people" (p. 16).

Ackerly is "suspicious of theoretical claims to legitimacy because so often such claims privilege already privileged voices," for example, by ranking academic claims "over the knowledge claims of the less educated," thus masking "an exercise of political power" (pp. 8, 17). Although all accounts of human rights are, according to Ackerly, "accounts of power," her own approach is distinctive, she says, in taking seriously the arguments of postmodern and postcolonial critics of human rights theory (p. 26). Ackerly sees many of "our habits of daily life, institutions, practices, and global interactions" as having "rights-violating implications" that are concealed by, for example, the remoteness of their impact (p. 8). We need to discern and expose these consequences, and since this cannot be done by means of philosophical analyses of concepts such as "right" and "duty," we must take a different approach, one that "tak[es] seriously the activists' criticism of academic theory in its mainstream and critical forms" (p. 17).

To this end Ackerly has carried out an experience-based inquiry into the normative question of whether there are universal human rights (p. 136). She has examined the views of a number of human rights activists, focusing on activists for women's human rights because, she says, women's experiences can reveal "the range of shortcomings of human rights theory and human rights regimes" (p. 136). To learn about the activists' views, she observed online working groups, used e-mail questionnaires, attended forty workshops and panels, and conducted numerous in-person interviews (p. 144). The methodology Ackerly has developed and employed ("curb-cut feminism") involves a "destabilizing epistemological perspective" (p. 35) that "seek[s] to challenge unreflective ways of knowing in order to reveal forms of power concealed in institutions and habituated practices," and also facilitates sustained self-reflection (p. 27).

Drawing from women's experience, Ackerly has formulated a theory that can, she claims, guide "political action for securing human rights" (p. 141). However, her book does not make clear what relation she sees between (a) providing such guidance, and (b) determining the answer to the question of whether there are universal human rights. Nor does Ackerly make clear precisely what she means by this question. It appears that she aims to find out empirically whether the activists she studies believe that there are universal human rights; however, this belief may be either positive (everyone has rights) or normative (everyone should have them); moreover, its content can vary depending how the terms "rights" and "human rights" are understood.

Ackerly identifies "competing, even irreconcilable, views" among the activists she has studied (p. 28), yet she also finds three interconnected ideas shared by many of them. First, human rights are "integrated" and "indivisible": since "each right is secure only if the others are secure" (p. 211), they "cannot be itemized and disaggregated" (p. 241). Therefore, "a list of human rights is [merely] a gesture at describing what it would mean to be able to exercise one's human rights," and the delineations among the rights are "heuristic not conceptual" (p. 211). Second, human rights are interrelated: no person's rights are secure unless everyone's rights are secure. Finally, human rights "are secured through a fabric of social, political, and economic life" (p. 211).

Ackerly asserts that these shared "insights"—that human rights are indivisible, interrelated, and structurally sustained—together determine "the scope of the content of universal human rights" (p. 211). So understood, "human rights are not individual in the tradition of natural law theory or liberal constitutional theory" (p. 42), and no list of human rights can be satisfactory; "the content of human rights is better understood as their scope" (p. 211). Acknowledging that this view of human rights "is only widely, not universally shared" (p. 212, n.43), even among women's human rights activists, Ackerly nevertheless draws the conclusion that although "there is not a completely theorized idea of universal human rights . . . there is an incompletely theorized coherent account emerging through human rights practice and immanent reflection" (p. 269).

In this book Ackerly is mainly preaching to the converted. She urges human rights activists whose specific purposes bring them into conflict with each other to find ways to build on points of agreement, guided by the insights that human rights are indivisible, interrelated, and structurally sustained. However, while she sketches arguments that activists can address to each other, she provides few arguments that they can address, respectfully and not merely strategically, to their opponents or to those with whom they are negotiating.

A theorist undertaking to describe the ideas and ways of reasoning that move human rights activists must first decide whom to study—that is, how to define "human rights activist" and how to identify members of this category. Should it include all who identify themselves as human rights activists, even if their views about human rights (for example, about their content or their proper implementation or enforcement) disagree significantly with those of other activists or with those of the theorist? Arguably, the category should include, at a minimum, all who have worked for implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including governmental officials. Ackerly's study included only activists for women's human rights, most of whom worked for nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations as employees or volunteers (pp. 142–49).

It was foreseeable that the group Ackerly studied would have a broader and more expansive conception of human rights than, say, activists for prevention of genocide or for establishment of the International Criminal Court, and foreseeable also that they would be less focused on questions about, for instance, the justifiability of limiting state sovereignty or using force internationally for purposes of securing human rights. These questions give theorists good reasons to disaggregate rights claims. The fact that this book contains neither a fully developed justification for the design of the author's study nor a discussion of the inevitable limitations of her conclusions (about the ideas and ways of reasoning that move human rights activists, and also about human rights) is surprising, given Ackerly's emphasis on the politics of knowledge. Unfortunately, this shortcoming partially undermines what the book has to offer both to philosophers and to activists.

The reviewer is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ohio University. Her recent work includes "Nussbaum versus Rawls: Should Feminist Human Rights Advocates Reject the Law of Peoples and Endorse the Capabilities Approach?" in Global Feminist Ethics (2008).