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The Lawful Rights of Mankind AN INTRODUCTION TO THE INTERNATIONAL LEGAL CODE OF HUMAN RIGHTS by Paul Sieghart (Oxford: $15.95; 252 pp.)

October 06, 1985|Austin Straus | Straus, a poet and artist, was formerly Southwest regional coordinator for Amnesty International. and

Throughout the long and bloody history of man's gropings toward "civilization," we have learned to restrain the power of our governments by using constitutions and similar mechanisms to build in legal safeguards against oppression.

Unfortunately, many states have in varying degrees violated these "social contracts." An International Law of Human Rights has evolved to fill the need for a force superior to particular national legal systems. This independent code acts as overseer and final judge in cases where states are unwilling to police themselves. The horrors of world wars, genocide and torture have shown that human rights are both too valuable and too fragile to be left entirely to ephemeral governments tempted to override and squash them.

I confess that I approached Paul Sieghart's "The Lawful Rights of Mankind" with some skepticism about the usefulness of such international codes. Even the United Nation's magnificent "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" sometimes seems a mere collection of high-sounding but impractical ideals for nations to strive toward, not a basis for precise, enforceable human rights laws.

This nagging difficulty of enforcing international human rights laws haunts an otherwise brilliant exposition by Sieghart, an "international arbitrator and consultant" who wrote "The International Law of Human Rights" (1983). In this shorter non-technical work, he traces the growth of "human rights" from an allegorical village through priests, princes, Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment to the modern sovereign state.

Though such laws are relatively new, Sieghart shows that they have already forced many European states to change their national laws. More important, however, has been the effect of these new laws on the behavior of governments concerned about their international "image." "Few nations today believe that they can safely risk becoming outright international pariahs because of the way they treat their own citizens."

But foreign policy and trade considerations usually outweigh moral concerns so that governments "which habitually denounce each other in public . . . may frequently be seen to maintain a surprising silence about each other's domestic human rights records . . . ."

The growing strength of international human rights law damages "not merely the offending government's public image, but its very legitimacy." Once that legitimacy is threatened, "it becomes legitimate for everyone else to procure its downfall." Cases in point: the Greek colonels' regime of 1974, Uganda's Amin, Central Africa's Bokassa, the Shah of Iran, Nicaragua's Somoza and others.

Sieghart also includes an analysis of the rights enumerated by the codes as well as an appendix including crucial portions of the nine general human rights instruments. All this makes "The Lawful Rights of Mankind" one of the best introductions to International Human Rights Law available.

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