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Book review: Universal human rights in theory and practice by Jack Donnelly

Jack Donnelly’s Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (3rd Ed., 2013) is a fundamental text for those studying any area of human rights. Starting out by establishing a basic understanding of what “human rights” means, Donnelly leads up to his main premise that human rights are equal, inalienable, and universal, even with considerations of cross-cultural relativism. He ultimately argues that human rights are not culturally relative because culture is not the cause or a factor in the development of human rights ideas and practices and is not necessarily for or against any particular human rights. Donnelly states, “No particular culture or comprehensive doctrine is by nature either compatible or incompatible with human rights. It is a matter of what particular people and societies make of and do with their cultural resources. Cultures are immensely malleable…” (p. 107). Using a variety of examples from different countries, cultures, and points in history, Donnelly proceeds to provide examples that support his argument of universal rights versus cultural relativism. Much of his book centers around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has functioned as an authoritative body of rights, rooted in human dignity and universality, and agreed upon by most of the modern world, regardless of how they are actually played out in society. One major strength of this book is that Donnelly updates it to keep it relevant. While the first edition focuses a lot on Cold War-era examples and issues, the third edition focuses on issues of anti-genocide attitudes, the rights of sexual minorities, and the problems of poverty and political repression as consequences of development. Donnelly’s argument does get confusing and circular at times, if not dry, but even those who disagree with his premise will not deny that he offers a good foundation to human rights theories, as well as important ways to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

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