Briefly Noted

| June 2015
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The Twilight of Human Rights Law, Eric A. Posner (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 200 pp., $21.95 cloth.

In concert with recent pessimistic scholarship on the human rights regime, Eric Posner slams the efficacy of international human rights law in The Twilight of Human Rights Law. He argues that international law has done little if anything to improve human rights on the ground, and insists that to maintain otherwise is to ignore the empirical evidence.

Beginning with a brief history of international human rights law, Posner reminds us that the purpose of establishing a formal human rights legal regime was to improve human rights in the immediate aftermath of World War II. He surveys all the regime’s various components, including the eight core human rights treaties (with their accompanying state-compliance review committees) and the appurtenant human rights mechanisms (including courts, national human rights institutions, and the Universal Periodic Review). He then offers reasons why  states might adhere to international human rights law—for instance, to ensure international aid or to avoid being sued by their citizens. The motives, then, are instrumental, and it is no surprise that states often find ways to flout the rules they formally agree to.

Posner cites several studies that demonstrate empirically how international law has failed to materialize human rights on the ground. He cites a study published by Freedom House in 2013 on international human rights treaty compliance that concludes that some authoritarian regimes actually engaged in more human rights violations after they had ratified human rights treaties; and another study by Freedom House that suggested that countries do not consistently restrict aid to human rights-violating states. And, although he admits some notable successes for the international human rights regime, as in its role in ending apartheid in South Africa, Posner emphasizes what the evidence empathically forces him to conclude: that “human rights treaties do not systematically improve human rights outcomes.”

As a better means of advancing people’s wellbeing, Posner encourages thinking of human rights as a development issue, not a legal one. He considers donor countries helping to build infrastructure in aid countries as having more impact than forcing a country, for instance, to abolish torture. Not only would building roads boost economic growth but it would also improve access to voting stations, potentially advancing political rights as well.

The Human Age: The World by Us, Diane Ackerman (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 344 pp., $27.95 cloth.

When it comes to counteracting humans’ negative influence on Earth, prolific essayist Diane Ackerman remains optimistic. In The Human Age, she focuses on the dire need to address climate change. She is “enormously hopeful” because the problem’s cause—human ingenuity—is also its solution. “Our mistakes are legion, but our talent is immeasurable,” she writes.

Ackerman provides many examples of human-induced climate problems. In discussing the effects of human activity on reefs, she notes that the last time reef death occurred was sixty-five million years ago—that is, when an asteroid wiped dinosaurs off the planet. She profiles the Yup’ik tribe in Alaska, whose members, due to melting permafrost, have become climate change refugees. And she examines the case of  Tuvalu, a small island nation that has been forced to evacuate its citizens to New Zealand due to a rising Pacific Ocean.

Ackerman takes us on several tours of her Hudson Valley garden in order to drive the point home that there is no corner of our planet—from our own backyard garden to the depths of the oceans—that has not been altered, either subtly or glaringly, by human hands. This point, combined with her argument for the potential of human ingenuity to help bring about climate improvement, leads her to the book’s main argument: that the human species can be held as ethically duty-bound to try and offset climate change. She applauds, for example, the  endeavors of the tiny island nation of the Maldives to aim for carbon neutrality by 2020. For her, programs such as the Maldives’ are not just commendable peripheral exceptions but well-instituted models that can and should be replicated by other nations. The resulting global impact, if others do indeed follow, would be profound.

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Category: Briefly Noted, Issue 29.2

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