human rights

Re-Assessing the Promises and Possibilities of Human Rights

After decades of both success and backlash in Human Rights protection and activism around the globe, especially in the post-Second World War scenario, the three volumes, namely Human Rights Futures, The Limits of Human Rights, Actualizing Human Rights can help us reflect upon the past, the present and the future of Human Rights from a variety of theoretical perspectives. Published at different places and times, the works analysed here pose important questions and give valuable insights into the larger field of Human Rights, exposing its limits and possibilities. With these above-mentioned books, anyone invested in Human Rights scholarship and/or practice, can find a very critical and in-depth analysis of how Human Rights as moral principles and legal guarantees have evolved and succeeded at some fronts while failing at others.

In Human Rights Futures, the editors have managed to gather some of the most prominent scholars associated in the field of Human Rights, law and politics – working around one crucial question: What are the possible futures for Human Rights?

To reach an answer for that, both “pessimistic” and “optimistic” scholars have provided their insight into what Human Rights movements have achieved and what are the challenges left standing.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters, and what really sets it apart from previously published works on Human Rights is the diversity of opinions, the theoretical backgrounds and the methodological choices. The chapters were written by well-rounded scholars in the fields of political science, history and anthropology among others. 

The editors, in the Introduction, establish the aims of the book and outline its major debates. According to them, one cannot imagine or make sense of Human Rights futures without diving into their past and present circumstances (p. 23). The book was apparently divided between scholars who believe in the global mobilization for Human Rights as a positive and promising task and the ones who perceive Human Rights as ambivalent, ineffective or even irrelevant (p. 2). In sum, the larger goal was to provide a comprehensive account of Human Rights outcomes since the so-called “globalization” of the Rights-talk in the 1940s and the 1970s. Throughout the chapters, authors are constantly in conversation with each other discussing their previous scholarly work.

On one hand, some authors showcase through relevant empirical data and theoretical analysis how Human Rights movements and Human Rights law (both national and international) have generated positive outcomes (especially on Chapters 2-4), while on the other hand more “sceptical” scholars point out to a backlash on Human Rights protection worldwide and question the sufficiency of these Rights in relation to larger claims of social justice and social freedom for an example (Chapters 5, 10, 11, and 12). Either way, the final result is a book which profoundly challenges the linear conceptions of Human Rights progress as a moral tale. There can be many futures for Human Rights, as they are not separated from the social and the historical context that they are embedded in; therefore, the advancement of the Rights agenda in a world in change will depend upon social, economic and political forces that can shape the struggle for Human Rights globally. With this volume, readers are served with a robust, sophisticated and balanced assessment of Human Rights scholarship and practice.

To imagine the futures of Human Rights and the role of Human Rights in our future, it is essential to understand what these Rights are, the purpose they serve and what are their limitations. Human Rights cannot mean it all, there has to be an acknowledgement of what Rights can do for us and what they cannot. On The Limits of Human Rights, different authors discuss the limits international Human Rights have in regards to definition, implementation, and capability of delivering protection. Just like other branches of international law, international Human Rights norms are limited in various senses; however, their aspirational and ambitious character can often trick scholars and activists into thinking that Human Rights are limitless, which can undermine Human Rights protection efforts and even harm other indispensable social values. As stated in the Introduction, this book aims to “[…] identify and to conceptualize limits of Human Rights, using different disciplinary understandings” (p 1).

Written by several experts in the fields of law, political science, history, anthropology, and beyond, The Limits is another in-depth and critical account of Human Rights scholarship and activism. However, this is not necessarily a “pessimistic” or “sceptical” work, on the contrary, it is a realistic one that aims to strengthen the fight for Human Rights and not otherwise, because to advance Human Rights norms and mobilization one has to be aware of their conceptual and practical limitations. The book is quite extensive and is composed of twenty-four chapters, divided into five parts. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of it is that the authors dialogue with each other throughout the chapters, building a rigorous debate around the limitations of Human Rights.

Part 1 of the book discusses the historical, foundational and “original” meanings of Human Rights (or the Rights of man, as established in the eighteenth century), seeking to highlight its power and limitations. In Part 2, authors investigate the more practical limitations Human Rights face in different social and political realities as opposed to its philosophical limitations. Here, the emphasis is given especially upon political and institutional limits at an international level. Part 3 explores how the struggle for women’s Rights has dialogue (or not) with the general Human Rights movement. Authors thoroughly investigate what are the limitations to female empowerment and how they can be emancipated through Human Rights. Part 4 is a detailed discussion on Human Rights and armed conflict; the authors discuss and analyse how effective international Humanitarian law has been in establishing the laws of warfare, in limiting war and what are shortcomings of the so-called “Humanitarian tradition”, among other things. Part 5 is the last part of the book and the chapters altogether draw an outlook of the limits of Human Rights claims and Human Rights practice. This part explores unfulfilled promises of the Rights-agenda and the strategies to make Human Rights a reality for all.

Ultimately, by pointing out the limitations Human Rights have in its relation to the law, and in certain contexts and areas of social life, this book can help us make sense of what Human Rights are, what they have been and what they can still become. It is only by realizing the limitations as well as the potential to Human Rights that scholars, activists and practitioners can advance the ‘Rights-agenda’ or the ‘Rights-talk’, and this book might be a crucial tool for that task.

In tune with the other volumes previously discussed, Actualizing Human Rights debates the present gaps in Human Rights protection and how to ensure that they are filled in the future. Written for the Routledge Studies in Human Rights series, this book engages with three major topics: (i) global inequality; (ii) “the challenge of future people”; and (iii) scepticism or disregard towards Human Rights. Neoliberal globalization alongside other transnational economic and political processes has seriously undermined the fight for social protection in the contemporary world, generating negative outcomes especially for the protection of social and economic Rights. Moreover, the effects of Human-induced climate change can easily harm a set of previously established Human Rights such as the Rights to life and health, to food, water and housing (amongst others) of present and future generations. Additionally, Human Rights have been facing attacks and growing scepticism and disbelief worldwide as a result of extremist and populist politics. The author successfully and profoundly manages to engage with these questions and challenges, analysing how we may respond to them, from a Human-Rights standpoint.

However, differently from the other volumes here cited, this scholarly work is certainly more policy-oriented. Besides his task of actualizing the Human Rights-agenda for the 21st century from a theoretical perspective, the author aims at exploring how to motivate people (policymakers, lawyers, academics, activists, and citizens in general) and institutions to take Human Rights seriously and to actually realize them. The book has seven chapters divided into three parts. Part I addresses Human Rights as a concept and the most common challenges it has been facing (perhaps since they first “appeared”), including (but not limited to) scepticism, relativism and politicization. Part II discusses what the author calls “novel challenges” to Human Rights, which include the challenge of growing global inequality and ‘the challenge of future people’ which means the need for safeguarding the livelihood (and Rights) of future generations through climate change mitigation. In Part III of the book, the author explores how to convince and motivate people that Human Rights matter and that they are a cornerstone in the fight for global justice.

In general, Actualizing Human Rights provides an up-to-date analysis of major challenges Human Rights still need to overcome in order to achieve worldwide appeal and full realization; vast inequalities, climate change and lack of motivation are some of them. Ultimately, the author argues that Human Rights can indeed meet these various challenges. However, despite his rigorous and thorough account of Human Rights, this debate is far from settled. Other authors may not agree that the global Human Rights regime alone is capable of eliminating global inequalities or to provide a sustainable life for future generations, at all. Nonetheless, this book is of great importance and relevance. Human Rights have changed and evolved throughout history and it is always necessary to actualize the fight for Human Rights so they can meet the most current societal challenges.

Summing up, even though the books discussed here are not a trilogy, they are definitely complementary to one another although conflicting at times. Anyone interested in speculating what role Human Rights may play in the future of Human civilization ought to consult these volumes. It is only when one assesses the past and present achievements and shortcomings of Human Rights that they can think about what roads are open for Human Rights to follow. After reading these three books the only plausible conclusion is that there may not be a conclusion: the task of Human Rights is one that might never be entirely complete. The future of Human Rights is not written on the stars but instead, is open for both action and imagination. Challenges to Human Rights may always appear, however, it can perhaps be easier to tackle and cope with them once we have a clearer vision over the limitations and possibilities for Human Rights in the contemporary world.


Fassbender, Bardo; Traisbach, Knut (ed.). The Limits of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 388 p.

Hopgood, Stephen; Snyder, Jack; Vinjamuri, Leslie (ed.). Human Rights Futures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 336 p.

Philips, Jos. Actualizing Human Rights: Global Inequality, Future People, and Motivation. Oxon: Routledge, 2020. 131 p.

Junior researcher in the field of Human Rights. Student at the MFAMILY - Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree (EMJMD) in Social Work with Families and Children (class of 2023), at the University of Stavanger (coordinating institution in Norway). Post-Graduate Diploma in International Law. Bachelor in International Relations.

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