by William Twining (ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 248pp. Cloth £72.00/$110.00. ISBN: 9780521113212. Paper. £24.99/$37.99. ISBN: 9780521130264. eBook format. $30.00. ISBN: 9780511630132.

Reviewed by Mark Fathi Massoud, Department of Politics, University of California, Santa Cruz. Email: mmassoud [at]


HUMAN RIGHTS, SOUTHERN VOICES, edited by William Twining, is among the first volumes to bridge western legal theory with important theoretical advances in human rights by a great number of scholars who are non-Western in origin, or who live in or actively research law in non-Western contexts. Human rights scholarship will continue to benefit from more works that follow this example.

Twining is the Emeritus Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London. With a breadth of contributions to the law of evidence, globalization studies, and the philosophy of law (see e.g., Twining 2009), Twining began his teaching career at the Anglophone law faculties of East Africa – the Universities of Khartoum and Dar-es-Salaam. With this book, Twining has in some ways returned to those roots where his career began more than a half-century ago.

Twining organizes the volume in the following, straightforward, manner. A concise (three-page) introduction narrates the goals, scope, and structure of the book. Four chapters of about 50 pages each constitute the core of the book. Each of these is an exhibit of the unique work of one of four “Southern voices” – Francis Deng, Abdullahi An-Na’im, Yash Ghai, and Upendra Baxi. Twining begins each of these chapters with an introduction to the author. Primarily factual (the scholar’s origins, educational background, and academic and legal positions), each account sets a context for the readings that follow. But the narrative is also at times deeply personal; one senses that Twining is introducing a respected or longtime friend (Twining admits to knowing each scholar personally). He then presents a selection of passages by the author, followed by a list of suggested readings for those interested in engaging further with the author’s work in human rights. Twining anchors the book with a pithy conclusion, drawing together the ideas of the four scholars by categorizing their views of human rights and raising questions that emerge from their collective body of scholarship.

That Twining begins each chapter with the life and educational experiences that formed each Southern voice sheds light on the book’s undeclared but significant jurisprudential starting point. That is, social contexts, cultures, and experiences shape the ways in which an individual approaches, understands, and evaluates the law. A notion unsurprising to interdisciplinary legal scholars, it begs us to recall circumstances in which minority identities have been [*37] compartmentalized and confined. United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her 2009 Senate confirmation hearings, defended statements that her background as an inner-city Latina colors the lenses through which she sees law. Much in the same way, a white, wealthy, married businessman’s experience of law would surely tint his views of it, and so on. He might, though, enjoy a presumption that his identity is irrelevant to his views on law or rights.

Similarly, one of the immediate challenges presented by a book on “Southern voices” is the danger of producing a display of scholars whose work is situated as exotic or foreign, implicitly separating them and their ideas from those of Western scholars. Such a spectacle not only would reify one aspect of the scholars’ multifaceted identities, but it also would undermine the scholarly range that non-Western specialists possess. With genuine concern, though, Twining lays himself bare, as he does his subjects – identifying himself as a “British jurist working in the Anglo-American tradition” whose goal is “to make our culture of academic law less parochial and ethnocentric” (p.2).

The four scholars’ contributions to human rights theory are extensive, and are highlighted in great detail in the book’s core and its conclusion. While their featured work is previously published, Twining pulls together their most important writing on the politics of human rights. Each scholar in some way aims to expose the extent to which human rights matter or fail to matter within non-Western contexts. The selections presented in the volume reveal a shared effort to link human rights theory with the daily lives of those who experience human rights – or, those who suffer violations of human rights – in the global South.

Francis Deng uncovers how Dinka traditions in Sudan relate to human rights, with anthropological mastery and rich detail. Abdullahi An-Na’im, concerned by the political uses of Islamic law by state actors, argues for reform of Islam by Muslims, in part “through the enhancement of the cultural legitimacy of [human rights] standards” (p.80). Concentrating on Asia, Yash Ghai extends the debate over the universality of human rights by revealing how the assertion of indigenous values reflects both a perceived imposition of foreign value systems and “an attempt to legitimize authoritarianism” (p.110). Upendra Baxi’s work on human rights is the most passionate and conflicted of the four – squarely focused on human suffering, he at once provides the most vociferous critique of human rights and a forthright call for its defense.

Unifying the four authors is their courage to enter into a “terrain of struggles” (p.123), exposing themselves to critiques by both Western and non-Western audiences. In addition, all four are trained as lawyers; all are men; and with the exception of An-Na’im, all are over 70 (shared characteristics that Twining acknowledges). Each scholar lived under colonial rule and has worked in law or public policy in post-colonial contexts. Together, these four intellectuals come from a variety of “Southern” contexts – India, Tanzania, Kenya, and Sudan. But the four also earned degrees from, or have taught at, [*38] well-known universities in the West, including Harvard, Berkeley, Yale, Emory, Oxford, and Edinburgh.

Twining is explicit that the authors’ voices must “speak for themselves” (p.2). This objective leaves to the reader the challenge of unraveling the complex ways the authors’ non-Southern experiences have merged into their Southern identities. Surely these “Southern voices” have developed subtle Western accents over the years. Each writes in English, and with a few key exceptions (most notably Baxi), much of the tremendous bodies of literature they have produced is published by and consumed in Western universities or policy groups. Twining’s concern, though, is that their voices, Western-accented though they may be, must not remain outside “the mainstream of Western discourse about human rights” (p.2). This book marks Twining’s effort to shine a brighter spotlight from the West onto the work of these scholars of non-Western origin.

Altogether, this well-organized book offers a valuable examination of human rights through the perspectives of four – or five, including Twining himself – legal scholars. Each of them brings a unique and profound depth of personal experience and wisdom to his scholarship. It is a suitable text through which to introduce undergraduates to the broad range of human rights theory, and it is critical reading for graduate students, senior scholars, and those in between, who take human rights theory seriously. Those who read this book will appreciate human rights through a diverse set of frames – its relationship to culture and obligation (Deng), to religion and constitutionalism (An-Na’im), to state power and conflict (Ghai), and to poverty and resistance (Baxi); in addition to providing the reader with a deeper context for Twining’s own far-reaching body of work.

Twining, William. 2009. GENERAL JURISPRUDENCE: UNDERSTANDING LAW FROM A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Mark Fathi Massoud.