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Mainstream, VOL LX No 29, New Delhi, July 9, 2022

Review: Raghavan on Heinze’s ’The Most Human Right’

Friday 8 July 2022

Book Review by G Narasimha Raghavan

The Most Human Right:
Why Free Speech Is Everything
by Eric Heinze

London: The MIT Press
2002
211 Pages
ISBN 9780262046459 (hardcover)
$27.95

Interestingly, the visual artist and utopian author, Robert Alan Silverstein’s statement is accurate on its timing: "The evolution of the human rights movement clearly illustrates humanity’s ongoing struggle toward creating a better world." It is struggle, struggle and struggle that the author, Eric Heinze endeavours to acknowledge in his book, The Most Human Right. Of course, it is not a documentation of the human rights violation that occurs every second globally. It is the struggle to define terms associated with human rights that take centre-stage in this book.

Human right violations are not new, and we know that. What is important for us know, nevertheless, is that human right violations take special forms with passing of time. Sedition, as documented in the Indian media of late, is one such type, while the latest rulings in the USA, regarding Abortion, are another type. However, in this book, the cases relate mostly to free speech (and that too not in depth).

Drawing on a variety of sources, from Confucius, René Descartes, John Stuart Mill, Romans, Hobbes (ideas from the Leviathan), John Locke. Friedrich Hegel, among others, Heinze gives readers a quick peek of the thoughts of the forerunners of human rights lobby group. It is quite one-sided in the sense that human rights movements have not been just a Western notion, but one that is entrenched in many indigenous and aboriginal clans. Nevertheless, the beliefs and viewpoints put forward give the book a historical gradation, though not a profound one.

Just as it is generally accepted, the ideas of evolution are spacious in their approach, in the sense that it traverses the existence of every living thing, so is the concept of human rights. Expands the author, “Virtually every important problem in today’s world—poverty, racism, sexism, child abuse, environmental pollution, human trafficking, arms control, health care provision, corporate power, political repression—involves human rights.”. It will come to us as no surprise, since regular media and social media compete with one another to bring to light issues of violation of human rights — like robbers beaten to death by civilians, to resident living in places filled with filth and grime, to larger issues like civil wars, internecine wars, shadow wars and military coups.

One common theme that runs through this book is the age-old friction between the State and its citizens. Majority of the human rights violations are state-sponsored or are due to the convenient dereliction of the State machineries. In some cases, we would find constituents of the State, like police or military, exhibiting wanton violation of human rights. What was earlier an internal concern, is, for the past few decades, an unease worthy of worldwide attention. Heinze goes on to say: “Traditionally the relationship between a government and its population had been viewed as a domestic matter.....Only in the twentieth century did experts come to view that relationship as a major concern of international law”. In the same vein, the author dedicates a substantial portion of the book to Free Speech, though the points made are not very effective.

The reader of this short book would also find a few other issues with regard to human rights. For instance, the gullibility of human rights laws (like The Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to spatial and temporal interpretations, especially from experts, or the in-built trade-off in establishing an human rights system (like protecting one religious community over another) or officially supporting the human rights of one entity over and above the other (like rich vs poor). Finally, I would say this book could have been written in a more common-person centric manner, rather than with the vigorous academic rigour. It is an insightful book though, and will serve as a basic introduction to thoughts and ideas of human rights.

(Author: G Narasimha Raghavan, Associate Professor, Economics, Jansons School of Business, Coimbatore — 641 651, Tamil Nadu. India; E-mail: raghavangnarasimha[at]gmail.com)

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