The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights: Mid-Week Review

By Sam Ryan
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By Sam Ryan

I hadn’t planned to buy a copy of The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights when I attended the book’s launch at the Melbourne Writers Festival in September. The launch barely touched on the book, but the speeches, discussing a similar range of human rights issues, somehow inspired me to do so.

My reading of the book itself was similarly worthwhile yet short of hopes and expectations.

The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights is part of a series published by New Internationalist that provides “rigorous analysis and explanations of a number of global justice issues”. Other titles in the “no-nonsense” series cover issues such as globalisation, fair trade, climate change, world history, conflict and peace, science, and animal rights.

There is no question that authors Olivia Ball and Paul Gready deliver on the promise of a book that offers a one-stop shop for basic information on international human rights – a tool and reference point in promoting the cause.

The highlights throughout are the use of case studies … which bring the issues back to the real world and engage the reader’s sense of humanity.

The opening chapter considers the nature and (or versus) evolution of human rights, how human actions – both good and bad – led us to our current recognition of rights in international law. The chapter also covers differing cultural perspectives, in sum providing a fascinating context for and insight into modern rights struggles.

However it soon moves quickly into textbook style writing, at times a little legalese, making it less accessible for those with a mere passing interest, or less, in human rights – the very people I thought such a book should seek to engage. The highlights throughout are the use of case studies, mainly in boxed content used as supporting evidence, which bring the issues back to the real world and engage the reader’s sense of humanity. They offer some of the most powerful and thought-provoking accounts, data and quotes, such as that of late British actor and writer, Peter Ustinov, who said succinctly in 2003, “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.”

… I would say everyone (who is not an expert in human rights) should read it. It clearly demonstrates how far we have come, and how terribly far we still have to go.

Also disappointing, given the amount of statistics and data in the book, is the fact that it appears to have been relaunched in 2012 without revision since 2006. Under the impression it was a current book, it wasn’t until I read a reference to potential war crimes charges being laid against Donald Rumsfeld (for authorisation of torture) “when he leaves office”, that I flicked back and checked the publication details. Given the constantly moving nature of the subject matter and the raft of statistics, the information should have been revised if it was going to be reprinted (it was in 2009), and it’s unclear why it has been, at least implicitly, promoted as a current book.

The textbook style is to some degree necessary for the purpose of the book in providing contextual background and information. Overall it is worth reading; in fact I would say everyone (who is not an expert in human rights) should read it. It clearly demonstrates how far we have come, and how terribly far we still have to go.

… there are many critical facts, arguments and issues raised within its pages that demand greater exposure.

Indeed it is a handy reference tool for those of us who are interested and engaged in human rights with discussion not just of a wide range of rights and issues, but also ways and means of pursuing the cause, and questions about the most effective courses of action. Yet it’s failing is in its style.

In his forward for The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights, Desmond Tutu commends the book as “a call to question, to think, to act, and to contribute.”

I can’t help feeling The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights meets these objectives dutifully but without being accessible to those not already engaged; that it could have been something more – something I could recommend to all my friends, not just those with an existing interest in the area. Because there are many critical facts, arguments and issues raised within its pages that demand greater exposure.

Then again, perhaps it is merely meant to be a tool in our pursuit to engage others, in which capacity it is a worthy one.

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