Faculty Stories

A world of ideas for human rights standards

“A bracing critique of human rights law and activism from the perspective of the Global South” is how the publisher, SUNY Press, describes former Dean Makau W. Mutua’s newly published book Human Rights Standards: Hegemony, Law, and Politics.

In the book, Mutua steps back from the day-to-day struggle to extend basic human rights to citizens of countries the world over, and takes a critical look at how the norms of the movement are created in the first place.

“Standards, norms or rules are the foundation of any legal regime,” Mutua says, “and human rights law wouldn’t exist but for human rights standards. That’s why how norms and standards are made, and who owns them, are perhaps the most important questions any scholar can ask about human rights law. 

“Human rights law is an end product, a culmination of a long legal, social, political and cultural process of debate, dialogue, disagreement and sometimes coercion to arrive at an agreed text or norm. It’s like making sausage – you don’t really want to be a witness to the process.”

In researching Human Rights Standards, Mutua went back to examine a number of primary documents, from the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, and other key human rights treaties. In his critique, he wrestles with the problem of the “cultural illegitimacy” of human rights standards – how perspectives from nations in the Southern Hemisphere have been excluded or subjugated in the process of establishing those standards.

That’s a problem, he says, that has deep roots in human history.

“The world has since antiquity been a place of multiple asymmetries of power,” Mutua says. “Starting around 600 years ago, what I have called the Age of Europe started. In that span of time, a number of European states conquered – mostly through brutal force and violence – the continents of Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific Islands. It was a total domination. Much of that domination was extractive, including in the trade of human in slavery – especially of black Africans trafficked to the West. This colonial conquest was intellectual, cultural, economic and political – total dispossession of Africans, Asians and Native Americans by white Europeans. 

“In terms of ideas, the West imposed a Eurocentric template on thought and scholarship.  The spiritual ‘pacification’ of native peoples and cultures by Christianity completed the cultural genocide. 

“But then the decolonization movement emerged, retaking and liberating the Global South from the Global North, at least in political terms. My book excavates the making of human rights law in the context of this power asymmetry between the West and ‘the Rest.’ The book questions the ideological and conceptual roots of the human rights movement as being too Eurocentic, colonialist and imperial. And it argues for a more participatory normative process, one that is informed by the many cultural cleavages and philosophical traditions that make up our wonderful diversity as a human race.”

Human Rights Standards, four years in the making, follows upon Mutua’s previous books Kenya’s Quest for Democracy: Taming Leviathan and Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique. He is a SUNY Distinguished Professor and the Floyd H. and Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar at the Law School.