Law Book Review
A Book of Substance on Human Rights
Mohammad Moin Uddin
We, in the legal academies of Bangladesh, are in acute shortage of “quality” textbooks authored by our native writers. While there is no indignity in reading a foreign book, I feel extremely good to get to read an excellent book by our very own masterminds, more so because for decades we have developed a culture of dependence and intellectual constipation. Thanks to Professor Abdullah al Faruque for being a notable exception to that culture. The book under review, which is the third from this author, is the first full-fledged human rights textbook by a Bangladeshi author. The NHRC Chairman Professor Mizanur Rahman commented in the forward to the book that “Bangladeshi readers have long been feeling the absence of” such a book. Though late, it is an occasion for Bangladeshi readers to rejoice because the book came from an author who is known in our academic circles for his intellectual integrity and prolific research publications.
The book titled International Human Rights Law: Protection Mechanisms and Contemporary Issues is divided into 9 parts containing 28 chapters. In the first part, the author discussed on philosophical and historical origins of human rights and its development in different intellectual and religious traditions. In his narrative of the history, the author did not remain indifferent, rather took a course of critical appreciation. As he appreciated the American Declaration of Independence as it declared that “all men are created equal,” so he did not fail to remind us how black humanity has been denied for many centuries thereafter in the independent USA. Similarly, the role of religion in the development of human rights was marked with its ambivalent and contradictory role. The author also reminds us, as Amartya Sen did before him, that human right is not a unique product of western civilization. Sen in his book Development as Freedom (Ch. 10) commented that when Emperor Ashoka and Akbar were practicing human rights in the East, many of their contemporaries in the West were engaged in Inquisitions (p. 239). We find such nuanced appreciations of history in Professor Faruque's book.
In part 2, the author enumerates the International Bill of Rights with their underlying politico-ideological history and jurisprudential implications. Since the UDHR, the ICCPR and the ICESCR form the central core of modern day international human rights regimes, their contours and interdependence have been comprehensively presented in this part. As we proceed to part 3 of the book, the author clarifies some technical issues of international treaties in general and international human rights treaties in particular. Reservation is one of the technical issues of international treaties that has got special treatment in this part. Reservation of Bangladesh to some provisions of the CEDAW is an example in point. Should such reservations, which go to the heart of the Convention itself, be allowed or not? The author has presented the debate with its inherent sophistications. Derogation from some non-fundamental norms of human rights is another example of limitations on human rights' application. The author presented different debates for and against derogation clauses. Students will find these chapters very easy to understand despite the intricacies involved in dealing with these issues.
Part 4 and 5 deal with the UN-based and treaty-based, and other regional human rights protection mechanisms respectively. Framed in a very informative and comprehensive manner, the author compared regional mechanisms with the UN-based protection mechanism, and suggested that Asia is lagging behind in devising a regional human rights protection mechanism similar to other regions. In this case, South Asia presents a hopeful case, since countries under this sub-region, like the ASEAN region, have extended their cooperation in many areas of common interest under the auspices of the SAARC; the addition of human rights protection mechanism can improve the quality of this bond.
Part 6 deals with the national human rights protection mechanism. Since state is still the predominant purveyor of power in a territory, human rights cannot be ensured without taking sovereign states on board in the struggle for human rights. The author suggested that national human rights commissions and national judiciaries can play positive role in this respect. Of course, these institutions must be independent in the first place.
Part 7 of the book, which deals with group rights of indigenous peoples, women and children, disabled persons and refugees, forms an important highlight of the excellence of the book. Since these vulnerable groups suffer from subjugation and oppression at the hands of dominant segments of a given society, the protection of their human rights requires innovative discourses and passionate advocacy. The author has succeeded in presenting the special claims of these groups.
Apart from states, non-state actors like NGOs, the media, civil societies and big corporations have roles to play so far as human rights are concerned. The history of the non-state actors in this respect is very complex in so far as they have played vital role in the framing of many important human rights instruments, including the UDHR, but have also violated human rights at other times. Therefore, in recent times, the non-state actors' human rights advocacy has been facing opposition from many societies in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The author has presented both positive and negative sides of their role in part 8.
In the final chapter, the author dealt with the evolving relationship of human rights with good governance, right to information and participation, prevention of corruption, dissemination of human rights education etcetera. In our national context, these issues are fundamentally important for the overall promotion and protection of human rights.
To me, an ideal textbook is one that combines both intellectual depth and lucid presentation. The book under review fulfils both conditions to its limit. The author has presented the book in simple words avoiding unnecessary grandiloquence and verbosity. The author has rightly concentrated on the substance of the book rather than playing with words. The lucid presentation of the book has kept up with the high stature of the book.
While the book is commendable for its excellence in other respects, I would like to raise some questions on the approaches adopted in this book. First, the author has presented the book from a Universalist point of view. Though the author has given cultural relativism some space to breathe in his book, I think compared to the force of argument presented in recent times by different grassroots movements, Relativists deserve more attention and space. Some authors vehemently oppose universality of human rights so much so that they mark it as a tool of recolonization. Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash in their Grassroots Post-Modernism maintained that Cultural imperialism is inherent in the very claim of universal human rights (p. 144). This and other arguments need proper introduction in a context like ours.
Second, the book has not presented the special claims of developing countries on the face of universal human rights standard. Child labor can be an example. How will the working poor children in developing countries survive if they have to lose jobs facing the universal standard of prohibiting child labor? The book under review is silent about these special cases.
Third, there is no way to deny that protection and promotion of human rights is inextricably related with the political economy of a country. Unless and until the artificially created crisis of food and medicine is out there, the rhetoric of human rights will remain unrealized. We would like to hear more about this realization side of human rights in the coming editions of the book.
Finally, the human rights situations of our country could be made a topic for a separate chapter of the book. A decent discussion of the recent extra-judicial killings and torture in Bangladesh, like the Limon case, conditions of hilly people in the post-Peace Accord era Chittagong Hill Tracts and the forced disappearance of political leaders in different places would make the book more relevant for our readers.
In spite of the above-mentioned caveats I respectfully suggest, the book is an excellent piece of scholarly contribution to our legal academies. Long waiting has ended, and readers can take a sigh of relief as they have got a basic textbook on international human rights. Human rights instructors and students will definitely appreciate the book.
One of my colleagues at Chittagong University suggested that the publishers did not present the book in a form befitting with the substance of the book. I totally agree. But, I ask, when did Professor Abdullah al Faruque, my respected teacher and now the Dean of the Faculty of Law at CU, care about form and formality? We know him as a man of substance. I think consonant with his personality, this book of his is a book of substance.
The reviewer is Lecturer, Department of Law, University of Chittagong.