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Universal Human Rights In Theory And Practice

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This book explores mainly the political implications of human rights being equal, inalienable, and universal. The book is divided into five main parts, the first part focus on the theoretical structure on what we mean by right and how they work, the reasons for accepting system human right as outlined in the universal declaration of human rights. Furthermore, he provides that assuring effective enjoyment of one’s rights requires multiple social actors discharging their rights in addition to states (p.38). Donnelly also addresses the issues of group rights as a human right and also that in the modern world that there is overlapping consensus on the universal declaration model of human rights.

In part two the discussion mainly focused on the controversial issues of universality versus relativity of human rights and shows how universality includes the core elements of relativity in the sense that it does not mean they exist all over the world the same way rather human rights are relatively universal and also it provide in detail the bases for the divergent arguments for the issue. In addition, it provides a brief history of human rights in line with different cultures and regions such as Asian, African, Islamic, and also Christendom.

In part three Donnelly discusses the idea of human dignity and illustrates the idea of dignity based on the historical developments as well as the focusing on the Hindu and Confucian traditions. Part 4 explores the efficacy of bilateral and multilateral international action while part 5 addresses prominent post-Cold War issues, including humanitarian intervention, democracy, and human rights, and discrimination against sexual minorities. In this part, Donnelly strictly argues against the western opposition thesis that “the west proposed proclaiming at the world level only the civil and political rights...” (236). He argues that no single western state resisted international legal recognition of economic and social rights. No western state, except the United States, voted against the ICESCR in fact from the twenty-two countries of the west twenty-one of them are parties to ICECR. Even from those twenty-one countries, nineteen countries became parties to ICESCR way before they became parties to the ICCPR (242-250).


Donnelly is one of the prominent scholars in the area of human rights and is well known for his proficiency in the areas of human rights. He is the author of several books including, but not limited to, International Human Rights, Realism and International Relations, and also The Concept of Human Rights, and more than 80 articles. I just cannot comprehend how I can review his book. Anyone can observe that the book is meticulously organized; explanatory and also easy to understand by any reader, though it requires at least being familiar with the general human rights concepts. The Author’s writing skill and choice of words are mesmerizing. It shows how profoundly he understands the issue he addresses.

The author does not make assertions only he rather provides a detailed logical and evidentiary argument to support his claims. For example, his argument in the universality and relativity of human rights, and in his argument on how the western supported ICESCR he exhaustively provides his explanation from every possible side and also provided a detailed historical background on the issues so that the reader could have a clear understanding of the issue he is addressing.

Donnelly knows his audiences are those who have a background idea about the issues he raised for this reason he carefully constructed every topic to answer the questions the audience will have while reading as he put it “Many readers will have been struck by the fact that in the preceding chapter I did not even address, let alone identify as important, cultural relativity. That is not accidental” (106).

In the nutshell, the author's arguments are supported by detailed illustrations. The book is also well crafted and easy to grasp the intended purpose of the audience.

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Although there are many strong sides to the book, I argue to differ with the ways he addressed the issue of Islam and human rights. He rejected that Islam has laid down some universal fundamental rights for humanity as a whole. He even considers that “the scriptural passages cited as establishing the “right to freedom” is a duty not to enslave unjustly (not even a general duty not to enslave)…. The purported “right to freedom of expression” is actually an obligation to speak the truth”. (79). With regard to the issue of slavery, it was mainly practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia and at that time slavery flourished unchecked and the lot of the slaves was miserable in the extreme. The master possessed and exercised the power of life and death over the slave. However, Islam prohibited slavery and the prophet (peace be upon him) for his entire life never owned any slave. The idea of slavery was even repugnant to him. Islam is guided by the Quran and Sunnah (what the prophet ordered, practiced) of the prophet (peace be upon him) so anyone could understand that if the prophet was against the idea of slavery, it is difficult to conclude saying that there is not even a general duty not to enslave under Islam. Thus Islam aimed at the elimination of slavery and bondage and instituted regulations and means towards the achievement of that purpose.

Donnelly’s perception about the right of freedom of expression under Islam is that it is perceived as an obligation to speak the truth only. I argue that the right of freedom of expression under Islam, as he perceived it, should not be interpreted narrowly. Freedom of speech and expression is acknowledged in Islamic legal theory and is a component of its incredibly high ethical base. The objective of speech, according to Islamic philosophy is to build up love, tolerance, social harmony, and understanding among members in order to ensure peaceful coexistence. Islam gives everyone the right to exercise freedom of expression as long as they do not intrude upon the freedom and dignity of other people.

In an erudite and comprehensive work, Freedom of Expression in Islam, the Afghan scholar Muhammad Hashim Kamali sets out specific principles from which an entire doctrine of free speech can be derived. These principles are derived from the fact that many actions which are deemed praiseworthy in Islam can only be undertaken if one has the ability to express oneself freely. These include the proffering of sincere advice (Nasihah), the need to consult (Shura), personal reasoning, the freedom to criticize, the freedom to express an opinion, the freedom of association, and the freedom of religion. Therefore, understanding freedom of expression as an obligation to speak the truth only is narrowly understood that disregards the very purpose it is given by Islam.


Donnelly discussed the evolution of human rights regimes in a detailed manner. However, while summarizing the evolution of human rights regimes with tabular representation (193) he left out to show the evolution of children’s rights, which he discussed in the single issue human rights regime.

In addition to that, while addressing the concept of equal concern and respect in respect of state’s obligation Donnelly used only one of the subject pronouns as “in order to treat someone with concern and respect, she must first be recognized as a moral and legal person...”. But in order to avoid any feminist critiques, it would have been better if he uses he/she interchangeably. Even though the entire book’s spelling usage was excellent there is only one mistake on page 16, “As we have seen, his is precisely when...” it should be corrected as “this”.


The third edition of Universal Human Rights Theory and Practice (2013) explores mainly the political implications of human rights being equal, inalienable, and universal. It provides a brief history of human rights in line with different cultures and regions such as Asian, African, Islamic, and also Christendom. It also addresses contemporary human rights issues.

The book is well organized and his arguments are supported by evidence and logical reasoning which gives which makes the author’s argument compelling to accept. In addition to this, the book is also well crafted and easy to grasp the intended purpose of the audience. Although the book has many strong sides, it neglects to analyze in detail international human rights in relation to Islamic principles.

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Universal Human Rights In Theory And Practice. (2021, July 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2023, from
“Universal Human Rights In Theory And Practice.” Edubirdie, 27 Jul. 2021,
Universal Human Rights In Theory And Practice. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 9 Dec. 2023].
Universal Human Rights In Theory And Practice [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Jul 27 [cited 2023 Dec 9]. Available from:
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