Vol. 16 No. 12 (December 2006) pp.944-947
HUMAN RIGHTS AND GENDER VIOLENCE: TRANSLATING INTERNATIONAL LAW INTO LOCAL JUSTICE, by Sally Engle Merry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. 264pp. Cloth. $55.00. ISBN: 0226520730. Paper. $20.00. ISBN: 0226520749.
Reviewed by David Mednicoff, Center for Public Policy and Administration and Department of Legal Studies, University of Massachusetts – Amherst. Email: mednic [at] legal.umass.edu.
Like international law more generally, international human rights faces three major contemporary current challenges, which stem in part from the field’s remarkable success. Perhaps the most salient challenge comes from the fact that some of the very nations most responsible for the contemporary human rights regime, such as the US, have ignored or argued against the binding nature of specific elements of this regime in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11/01. At the same time, human rights law continues to fend off persistent attacks from non-western governments, who claim that it serves Western economic or other neo-imperial ends and often posit international human rights as the enemy of national culture. Third, the growing professionalization of human rights has led some analysts to bemoan the current field’s limitations in addressing some of the cosmopolitan or humanitarian ideals underpinning the human rights movement (e.g., Kennedy 2004). Especially when human rights seem to take a cramped back seat to the politics of national security, it is difficult for cultural relativists, human rights workers and recent critics of human rights professionalism to translate each others’ concerns and experience into productive intellectual and practical discourse.
This translation problem undergirds and informs Sally Engle Merry’s thoughtful and usefully detailed new book, HUMAN RIGHTS AND GENDER VIOLENCE. Merry goes beyond sweeping claims about culture or human rights efficacy to elucidate some of the complex, but ultimately fruitful patterns through which local and transnational rights activists promote and adapt international rights to mitigate issues of discrimination and violence against women in a variety of particular cases, including Fiji, Hawaii, Hong Kong and India. The book does a variety of things quite well, but two stand out. First, Merry cuts through clichés about the local and the global to articulate clearly some specific dilemmas that exist in translating international human rights to the vernacular of particular social contexts. Second, she illustrates the working out of these dilemmas through a variety of nuanced and diverse case studies.
The book’s structure is a logical reflection and reification of one of its principal arguments – that the content of human rights norms tends to be shaped more from the [*945] global to the local than in the other direction. Thus, each chapter moves progressively through a different dimension of human rights actors and structures, in a broad sweep from the global towards the local, thereby adding general analysis and specific case contexts for how human rights are contested and translated within and across these dimensions. After introducing her topic, explaining her (largely ethnographic) methodology and providing general background to human rights in the early part of the book, Merry proceeds to look at the international promulgation of women’s rights (Chapter 3), disjunctions between international rights and rights politics at the national level (Chapter 4), translation of rights to frames that work in terms of local activism (Chapter 5), and the impact international human rights has on identity-formation of activists on the individual level (Chapter 6). The book’s organization carries the considerable advantage of fostering thoughtful questions and generalizations within sufficiently focused dimensions of women’s rights actors to avoid essentialist dichotomies or vague pronouncements about human rights everywhere.
Merry thus covers a great deal of intellectual and geographical territory. This strength of the book, its use of many varied cases, can at times be a minor weakness – some cases and contexts get more convincing or thorough treatment than do others. For example, in Chapter 2, which discusses international legal debate and codification of women’s human rights, Merry describes herself intriguingly as engaged in ethnographic participant-observation of the culture of cosmopolitan civil servants and activists who are responsible for the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (pp.30-31). This anthropological stance is an interesting and fair-minded approach that facilitates the unpacking of assumptions that transnational rights workers bring to their efforts. At the same time, it carries the risk of creating some artificial intellectual distance between this part of Merry’s discussion and the context of transnational activism that will likely be familiar to many readers. While I found this discussion thought-provoking, I also felt the ethnographic posture encumbered somewhat the integration with other insights from political science and international legal literatures that are based more directly on the insights of these rights activists themselves.
Cases with which Merry has the most familiarity (and about which she provides the most detail) tend to be more illuminating than those based on less sustained research. For instance, in Chapter 4, Merry shows how the customary practice of bulubulu in Fiji is both more nuanced and diverse in methods and outcomes than transnational women’s activists usually argue to be the case. This is a fascinating and indispensable discussion of the mistranslations of local cultural practices at the global level that contrasts somewhat with the shorter, marginally less illuminating case study of the reform of Indian personal laws in the same chapter. The depth of insight of the more detailed cases, such as those of Fiji, the Chinese domestic violence education and publicity campaign (Chapter 5), and the female inheritance movement in Hong Kong (Chapter 6), made me wish for even more elaborate [*946] consideration of these cases. However, I appreciate at the same time Merry’s commitment to include enough cases to suggest geographic and analytical variety in how translating global women’s rights to local practices plays out in Asia and the world.
The book’s numerous and articulate case studies are framed by five conundrums that comprise the challenge of reifying international human rights in particular contexts (p.5). These are (1) the conflict between rights universalism and the particular location and experience of local rights practitioners, (2) the tension between the appeal of rights if they are cast in locally familiar terms and their ability to be effective through challenging commonly-understood notions of power, (3) the greater local marketability of rights when they are framed in terms of values or images versus their greater transnational comprehension and funding appeal when framed in terms of broad legal principles, (4) the need for rights to be implemented through institutions which are often in need of development because of weakness in local rights practices, and (5) the way that human rights both can erode but nonetheless depend on the authority of nation-states. These dilemmas are familiar to both students and practitioners of human rights, but are stated succinctly in the book, and clearly connected to the case studies and insights that follow.
Consistent with the richness and diversity of her case study materials, Merry wisely eschews simple answers to these five conundrums. Instead, she underscores two major themes. First is the very complexity of interaction and translation among varied human rights players and levels, from the global to the national to the local, in implementing international human rights law that is suggested by the five conundrums. Second is the need that follows for a usefully complex understanding of culture grounded in contemporary anthropology’s insights that see culture as consistently based in contestation and change (p.228).
This second point in itself may not seem controversial to the book’s more knowledgeable readers, including those in disciplines other than anthropology, where sophisticated treatments of culture have recently emerged (e.g., Swidler 2001; Wedeen 2002). However, Merry does an invaluable service by marrying a broad methodological prescription for the analysis of human rights issues to a multi-layered discussion of diverse, compelling cases. Indeed, Merry’s lucid writing, diverse tiers of analysis and insightful case studies ensure that this book is appropriate for both scholars and undergraduates with even a passing interest in human rights, ethnography or contemporary women’s activism.
In the end, the book provides a forceful call to enlist the nuanced tools of cultural anthropologists and others familiar with non-western law and politics in the service of a spirited defense of the continued political vitality and impact of universal human rights law. At heart, Merry believes in the potential of law to transcend the subordination of people to political order and to work towards social justice (p.231). Some may see this belief as [*947] naïve when considered alongside some of the Foucaultian analyses of law and culture or the critiques of human rights as neo-imperial that Merry acknowledges and knows so well (pp.185-188, 226). However, her clear-headed analysis and specific contextualization of cases generally dispel any such impression. If nothing else, Merry’s rich ethnography underscores that human rights discourse and law are here to stay, even in the face of both governmental and intellectual challenges.
Kennedy, David. 2004. THE DARK SIDES OF VIRTUE: REASSESSING INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIANISM. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Swidler, Ann. 2001. “What Anchors Cultural Practices.” In Theodore R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny (eds). THE PRACTICE TURN IN CONTEMPORARY THEORY. London: Routledge (74-92).
Wedeen, Lisa. 2002. “Conceptualizing Culture: Possibilities for Political Science.” 96 AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 713-728.
© Copyright 2006 by the author, David Mednicoff.
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Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice