by Lawrence M. Friedman. New Orleans: Quid Pro Books, 2012. 202pp. Cloth $46.99. ISBN: 9781610270700. Paper $27.99. ISBN: 9781610270717.

Reviewed by Zvi H. Triger, The Haim Striks School of Law, College of Management Academic Studies, Rishon LeZion, Israel. Email: zvit [at]


Professor Lawrence Friedman has been preoccupied with the sociology of the global human rights movement for quite a while. Already in 2010, in an LPBR review of Human Rights and their Limits (Osiatyński, 2009) he made an important observation, one that would stand at the center of his own argument in his new book: he argued that human rights scholarship, although vast in its scope, has been largely written by philosophers, political theorists and lawyers. The result has been, according to Friedman, a “surprisingly narrow” accumulative account of the history and development of human rights and of the human rights discourse (Friedman 2010, pp.133-134). While applauding the author of that book for its rigor, Friedman concluded his review hoping that “there are some scholars out there who are willing to take the next step,” i.e. to look at the human rights movement as a social fact (Ibid, p.135).

In The Human Rights Culture Friedman himself takes “the next step” and looks at both the human rights movement and the scholarship studying it through a sociological lens. Friedman argues that the demography of human rights scholars, who are, for the most part, mostly philosophy professors and political theorists, results in scholarship that “has a highly normative flavor” (p.157). Although a sociological approach to this subject is not new, Friedman argues that the meta-questions regarding the reasons for the human rights movements' growing success have largely remained underexplored and unanswered.

This book offers, according to Friedman, some answers to these questions, and explores the reasons for a dramatic shift in human history which occurred within less than two centuries from almost total lack of human rights, to an extremely influential and well entrenched notion of human equality and dignity in so many counties around the globe. The importance of human rights has been such that even countries that do not enforce them de facto, or even blatantly infringe upon their citizens’ rights – such as China, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and many others – have made a point of endorsing at least some of them de jure.

In eleven short chapters this concise book reconstructs the social history of the human rights movement, while not neglecting its philosophical and legal aspects. Friedman argues that the success of the human rights movements in the past sixty years or so has been a result of a gradually growing culture of human rights. This culture is a product of modernity more than of “Western” values, and therefore it is not surprising to find it budding in non-“Western” countries as well, especially among the educated elites of those counties (pp.74-75). He attributes the rise of the human [*291] rights culture to the rise of "expressive individualism" in both developed countries and among the elites in some non-“Western” countries (pp.48-49).

But the narrative is not one of consistent progression from “bad” to “good” (or better). In fact, the success of the human rights culture does not come without risks to its own existence. Take for example the well explored tensions between gender equality (Chapter 7) and religious and cultural rights (Chapters 4 and 9). An argument against the advancement of women’s rights concerns the protection and preservation of religious and cultural rights and traditions. Proponents of cultural and religious rights – some of them feminists – argue that the imposition and enforcement of gender equality norms on communities that do not adhere to these norms might endanger their heritage and infringe the communities’ and their individual rights. The many reservations entered to the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) nicely demonstrate this tension. In fact, Article 16 of CEDAW, which safeguards gender equality in the family, is the most reserved substantive article in the Convention, partly due to the fact that in many communities and societies around the globe family law is closely connected to religion (and in many instances family law is religious law), and most religious family laws (like most religions) are patriarchal.

One may view the way in which religious or cultural entities invoke their human rights in order to justify and facilitate various forms of discrimination against women (or other historically discriminated minorities, such as LGBTs) as an abuse of human rights discourse. But what is fascinating is that in doing so these actors accept and use the human rights discourse and its premises and even demonstrate human rights consciousness of some sorts.
Indeed, what is implied in Friedman’s argument about the impressive success of the human rights culture is that at least some minorities argue for their religious (and discriminatory) rights because they have embraced the human rights culture; their use of the human rights discourse proves, despite whatever their approach to some specific human rights may be, that these minorities are well immersed within this culture.

What is great about Friedman’s analysis, is that he not only develops convincing explanations to the questions that he asks at the beginning of the book, but that he also leaves the readers with additional questions to ponder. For example, reading Friedman’s sociology of the human rights movement and his analysis of gender, religious and cultural rights, I could not avoid asking whether the human rights culture he describes has developed in such a manner that it has come to contain the seeds of its own decline and indeed ultimate destruction. How can we avoid what is a seemingly strong trend within this culture of pitting one human right against another?

Similar questions – and especially the question concerning the potential for self-destruction – have been asked about democracy itself. What some have argued concerning democracy in general was that a democracy lacking gender equality, in which women have no voice, is not at all a democracy; the rise of religious and cultural rights claims as justifying women’s inequality represents a backlash against the successes of the [*292] feminist movement (Gilligan and Richards, 2009; Raday, 2012). In the same vein, I think one can argue that a human rights culture that legitimizes a right to reject and infringe upon others’ humans right is not a human rights culture. Friedman’s non-relativist approach to such questions of multiculturalism seems to be critical of this aspect of current human rights culture.

It seems that the very framing of this dilemma as a contest between mutually exclusive human rights – a practice common in human rights scholarship and jurisprudence, but avoided here by Friedman – assumes the (or, a) conclusion. And for some reason, in too many cases, women’s rights (and to a somewhat lesser extent LGBT rights) almost always have to give, especially when formulated in a way that contradicts religious and cultural rights.
Friedman offers us a new way of thinking about this divide: he rejects the understanding of human rights as a Western imposition; he shows that the “West” has been extremely patriarchal until quite recently. Common law doctrines such as coverture and marital rape; women’s suffrage (which in a certain Swiss canton was awarded as late as 1990); and other areas of life and law in which women have been discriminated against, have been targeted by the human rights movement no less powerfully than gender discrimination within religious and cultural minorities or non-“Western” countries. In doing so, the “West” tackled some of its own deeply entrenched patriarchal values. It therefore has not demanded changes in non-Western cultures that it has not demanded from itself. And finally, a commitment to human rights that discriminates between rights is not a genuine commitment, as it has a partial understanding of the “human.”

This is too much an important book to be sufficiently analyzed in such a short review. I therefore have to resort to what I always enjoy doing when I read excellent books: urge you to get your own copy and read it. Whether you are a human rights scholar, activist or a student, this book will greatly enrich your understanding of the field. Its accessible style and fluent prose make it also a great read for the general public and especially for those interested in the history and cultural context of the human rights movement.


Gilligan, Carol and Richards David A.J. 2009. The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy’s Future. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Friedman, Lawrence M. 2010. review of Human Rights and their Limits, by Wiktor Osiantynski. Law and Politics Book Review 20(4): 133-135.

Osiatyński, Wiktor. 2009. Human Rights and Their Limits. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Raday Frances. 2012 (forthcoming). “Gender and Democratic Citizenship: The Impact of CEDAW,” International Journal of Constitutional Law.

Copyright by the Author, Zvi H. Triger.