UPDATE (8 September 2014): Anthony is now with us permanently, but originally wrote this as a guest post after a stint as a Senior Visiting Fellow at the LSE in 2010, where most of us met him. It was in London that he presented an early version of this argument to the IR theory seminar. A response by our own Joe followed shortly afterwards.
One should not judge a book by its cover, but it is certainly possible to get some sense of the state of a field of study on the basis of the titles of recent books. In the case of the study of human rights, this is quite an interesting exercise: at a time when many claim that human rights proponents have never had it better – the term now has great political respectability and legitimacy; human rights NGOs are thriving; the study of human rights takes place in all the great centres of learning and is taken seriously by previously sceptical disciplines (philosophy, anthropology, international relations). At such a time, one of apparent triumph, there has been a spate of titles which give precisely the opposite impression.
Can human rights survive? What is the future for human rights? Who believes in human rights? Does God believe in human rights? At least two titles claim that human rights are in crisis with one of these playing telos off against demise in questioning the end of human rights. This theme is continued with the important but ironic idea that human rights have been silenced – ironic and paradoxical given their loud presence in all manner of global fora. For many, the success of human rights is a triumph of appearance over substance, and what is often most disturbing to commentators (apart from the obvious hypocrisies of human rights politics) is the absence of a coherent theoretical basis for human rights – a question which in turn can only really be answered by going back to more basic questions regarding the idea of justice.