Just Responsibility: A Human Rights Theory of Global Justice, by Brooke A. Ackerly

| December 2018
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Just Responsibility: A Human Rights Theory of Global Justice, Brooke A. Ackerly (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 314 pp., $99 cloth, $29.95 paper, $19.99 eBook.

Set within the parameters of global justice practice, Just Responsibility offers a strong, clear argument for assuming political responsibility toward basic structures of injustice in the developing world. Broaching international relations (IR) theory, political theory, and international human rights theory and law, the uniqueness of the book’s argument lies in its focus on political rather than moral responsibility toward unjust processes and in the way in which this argument is both organized and rehearsed.

Ackerly quickly assumes an international human rights approach to those suffering from injustice. She does not, however, defend any particular view about the philosophical foundations of human rights; rather, she focuses on their practical usefulness in situations of “power inequality” (p. 72). Ackerly calls this approach an “unfounded normative theory of responsibility” (p. 5), which uses human rights and calls on feminist methodology (experience-based theorizing above all) both to reveal these structures of injustice and to advance political action against them. The author draws predominantly on examples from the garment, building, and food economies of the Indian subcontinent in order to explore not why one should, but how one can assume responsibility toward the globally marginalized. Focusing on “action” and “power dynamics,” she lays out, above all, practical principles of activism that help foster political solutions to injustices and catastrophes in the developing world.

A recurring example in the book is the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, killing 1,134 people and injuring over 2,000. The feminist methodology of working from lived experience, collective identification with the oppressed, and “skeptical inquiry” situates the tragedy within processes of illegal land appropriation, poor construction, and micro-corruption. Locating culpability for the event beyond individual actors and within processes of “complex causality” helps facilitate strategies for action among researchers, international organizations, and local nongovernmental organizations working to prevent such tragedies. These strategies can help transform the structures of power that lead to catastrophic events in the first place.

As an unfounded normative theory with a clear empirical orientation, Just Responsibility offers an accessible contribution to recent literature on human rights theory and responsibility (both academic and practice-focused). Its overtly feminist approach is well argued on its own terms and will be appreciated by many feminist IR and political theorists working to address problems of gender violence, exploitation, and corruption. Practitioners will also find the principles on “connected activism” of interest for furthering nongovernmental political activity and for putting pressure on local, national, and international institutions to change their practices. In short, the book’s theoretical standpoint and the exposition thereof are outstanding. They also, however, constitute perhaps the book’s greatest flaw.

As mentioned above, Just Responsibility aims to give a theory of political responsibility using a nonfoundational account of human rights. This theory is one of integrated universal human rights: Ackerly does not accept the separation of basic needs and rights from the enjoyment of all rights per se. Hence her emphasis on the structures of injustice is always working toward the just transformation of political community (in which basic, economic, social, and political rights are presumably all enjoyed). Even if we accept her distinction between moral and political responsibility, Ackerly is nevertheless arguing for a general theory, one that involves undertaking local strategies against injustice, but one that has universal validity as such. And yet almost the entire book works off very specific issues of injustice and on the basis of the author’s (well-narrated) experiences in Bangladesh.

To justify its theoretical claims in terms of feminist methodology is not, for this reviewer at least, enough to give it experience-based general validity. Given that the book aims to deal with human rights and global justice, why, for example, is so very little said about the politics of basic rights lying behind post–Cold War humanitarian interventionism and about the concomitant problems of the doctrine of responsibility to protect? Why is nothing said about the political idea of sovereignty as responsibility and about the idea of differentiated responsibilities of given political communities across the developed and developing worlds?

One senses from several marginal comments that the author is very critical of (mostly Western) state-led practices, but there is neither theoretical nor empirical engagement with these practices of responsibility as ones of basic rights. No rights-based theory of political responsibility that sees rights as integrated can be generally applicable to issues of global justice unless it accounts for the dilemmas of humanitarianism from within its own perspective. Without such an account, the theory fails to achieve the political ambition for which it aims, in spite of the universal human rights framework supporting it.

In sum, Just Responsibility presents a strategic manual of action for activists in global civil society, rather than a general theory. To be sure, the book is laudable on its own terms, but those terms fall short of those of a theory of just responsibility. For some feminist theorists, this will be a moot point. That said, the book’s substantive claims around the politics of assuming responsibility would be more widely and better appreciated if the focus on global issues and actors was broader and more integrated. In this sense, Just Responsibility makes an argument for political responsibility that is at once very clear and yet very narrow.

—Richard Beardsworth


Richard Beardsworth is the E. H. Carr Chair in International Politics, head of the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University, and research associate at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 32.4

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