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Human Rights, the State, and Recognition

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In three recent books, Andrew Vincent, Kelly Staples, and Jeremy Waldron offer much to enrich our understanding of the interface between human rights, the state, and recognition. Andrew Vincent offers an overview of the development of human rights from nineteenth century decline to twentieth century renaissance. He links the decline of natural rights to nationalism and evolution, and attributes the rebirth of rights to the horrors of the Holocaust. He claims human rights are qualitatively different to natural rights – though I argue this is not completely clear. Vincent argues that human rights require states, but that human rights are also protection against states. Kelly Staples uses two case studies to examine the effects of statelessness on human rights. She argues that statelessness, contra Arendt, need not mean deprivation of all rights. Her case studies are persuasive, though she may be reading Arendt on statelessness too strictly, and a more systematic setting out of Staples’ re-theorisation of statelessness would be desirable. Jeremy Waldron argues that ‘dignity’ should mean a set of rights, rather than being a reason to be held to have rights or something rights ought to protect. In making this argument, Waldron argues against Kantian and Roman Catholic conceptions of dignity. A potential drawback to Waldron’s theory is that it is silent on those outside the ‘dignitarian society.’ The three books together seem to represent a welcome shift towards thinking about human rights in terms of recognition.

Affiliations: 1: School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University,


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