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The Future of Human Rights By Upendra Baxi, Oxford, Rs 495

The 20th century has witnessed some of the goriest tragedies in history — the Holocaust and Hiroshima-Nagasaki, to name only two. No wonder, the century has seen grand pronouncements on human rights all over the world. However, the logic and language of human rights have been contested at the local, regional and international levels. In this volume, Upendra Baxi explores the successes and shortcomings of human rights and their future in the era of globalization.

But first, Baxi elaborates upon the distinction between the modern and the contemporary definitions of human rights. Put in a nutshell, while the logic of exclusion is pre-eminent in the “modern” paradigm of human rights, in the “contemporary” perspective, the logic of inclusion is predominant.

The modern conception of human rights gave legitimacy to colonialism and imperialism, the two main devices of Enlightenment rationality, by excluding slaves, the colonized, women, children, poor and insane from the ambit of human rights. Contemporary human rights practices, based on realpolitik and influenced by sub-altern and post-modern theoretical developments, accept heterogeneity and difference.

The relationship between the discourse of human rights and governance differs markedly in the modern and contemporary paradigms of human rights. The former was constituted of the right of the colonizer to subjugate inferior peoples and his absolute right to property. The discourse of human rights was deployed in the service of governance. In contrast, the contemporary human rights paradigm is premised on radical self-determination, in which every person has the right to resistance.

In the modern era, human rights was state-centric, rather Euro-centric. The contemporary articulation of human rights is, in contrast, inclusive and marked by negotiations between nongovernmental organizations and governments. Modernism, influenced by social Darwinism, racism and patriarchy, justified cruelty as natural and just, or at least permissible in the pursuit of an Euro-centric notion of progress. Large masses of the colonized were not regarded human and hence their suffering could be rendered invisible. Contemporary human rights, on the other hand, questions all forms of cruelty.

Next, Baxi draws attention to the ambiguities of human rights. Very often, the zeal to protect human rights leads to the proliferation of norms and standards. Sometimes, efforts to ensure human rights may not lead to emancipation of the oppressed people, but to their further repression. The “universality” of human rights can thus be challenged in the context of cultural and ethical relativism.

Baxi says the very term, “human rights”, is problematic. Generally, it covers a range of sentiments from dignity, well-being, a sense of flourishing and so on. But this limits the notion to human beings only, whereas the new movements to save the environment, animals and so on, encompass a larger field.

At present, human rights have become the instrument of transformative political practices whereby, through myriad struggles and global movements, they destabilizes concentrations of political, social, economic and technological power.

Baxi ends with the observation that the human rights, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are being steadily supplanted by a more trade-related, market-friendly concept. With globalization and the increasingly complex linkages between development and donor-country conditionalities, human rights movements are faced with new dangers.

This book is essential reading for all those concerned with human rights and their future.

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