Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique

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In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and with it a profusion of norms, processes, and institutions to define, promote, and protect human rights. Today virtually every cause seeks to cloak itself in the righteous language of rights. But even so, this universal reliance on the rights idiom has not succeeded in creating common ground and deep agreement as to the scope, content, and philosophical bases for human rights.

Makau Mutua argues that the human rights enterprise inappropriately presents itself as a guarantor of eternal truths without which human civilization is impossible. Mutua contends that in fact the human rights corpus, though well meaning, is a Eurocentric construct for the reconstitution of non-Western societies and peoples with a set of culturally biased norms and practices.

Mutua maintains that if the human rights movement is to succeed, it must move away from Eurocentrism as a civilizing crusade and attack on non-European peoples. Only a genuine multicultural approach to human rights can make it truly universal. Indigenous, non-European traditions of Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas must be deployed to deconstruct—and to reconstruct—a universal bundle of rights that all human societies can claim as theirs.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Engaged, sometimes passionate. . . . Mutua's book is an inspiring one. . . . Viewing the human rights commitment as a self-justifying crusade, he points toward an innovative direction of research."—Human Rights Review

"A welcome and timely contribution to a human rights discourse that is becoming increasingly monolithic. Mutua is right when he argues that the human rights movement is neither nonideological nor postideological. The mantra of universal morality tends to mask its deeply political character."—Ethics and International Affairs

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812220490
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/28/2008
  • Series: Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Makau Mutua is Professor of Law and Director of the Human Rights Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Human Rights as a Metaphor
—The Metaphor of Human Rights
—The Grand Narrative of Human Rights
—The Metaphor of the Savage
—The Metaphor of the Victim
—The Metaphor of the Savior

Chapter 2. Human Rights as an Ideology
—The Authors of Human Rights
—A Holy Trinity: Liberalism, Democracy, and Human Rights
—Conventional Doctrinalists
—The Conceptualizers
—The Cultural Pluralists
—Political Strategists and Instrumentalists

Chapter 3. Human Rights and the African Fingerprint
—Africa in a Rights Universe
—Human Rights in Precolonial Africa
—The Dialectic of Rights and Duties
—The Duty/Rights Conception
—Whither Africa?

Chapter 4. Human Rights, Religion, and Proselytism
—The Problem of Religious Rights
—Demonizing the "Other"
—Proselytization in Africa
—The Legal Invisibility of Indigenous Religions
—Ideals Versus Realities
—The Moral Equivalency of Cultures
Chapter 5. The African State, Human Rights, and Religion
—Religion and African Statehood
—Identity Disorientation
—The Culture of Silence and Postcolonialism
—Counterpenetration as a Farce
—Benin Returns to Its Roots

Chapter 6. The Limits of Rights Discourse
—South Africa: the Human Rights State
—The Rights Framework as an ANC Strategy: A Snapshot of Apartheid
—The Evolution of a Rights Approach
—The Compromise of the Interim Constitution
—The 1996 Constitution as a Normative Continuum
—The ANC's Gradualist Rights Approach
—Land Reform as a Central Plank of the Struggle
—Women in Post-Apartheid South Africa
—The Status and Orientation of Post-Apartheid Courts
—Humanizing the Instruments of Coercion
—Rights Discourse Not a Panacea


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