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Laura Westra, Human Rights: The Commons and the Collective (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2011). 367 pages.

Reviewed by Guy Lancaster (Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture)

In her 2010 book Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide, philosopher Claudia Card, one of the foremost theorists of evil, poses the question as to whether ecosystems and species can be the object of evil—her secular definition of evil being reasonably foreseeable intolerable harms produced (maintained, supported, tolerated, etc.) by inexcusable wrongdoing. Arguing that damage to an ecosystem either destroys or degrades the larger context in which individual organisms locate their special value or significance, she thematically links ecosystem damage to such recognized evils as genocide; given that the unique harm of genocide, as opposed to non-directed mass killing on a large scale, is the destruction of the group context (ethnic, religious, national, etc.) in which people find meaning for their own lives. [1] Of course, given the ubiquity of human beings across the planet, some of those lives and unique contexts disrupted by ecosystem damage will likely belong to women and men, especially indigenous groups dependent upon their local environment, thus making the link between ecosystem damage and genocide rather less metaphorical. In fact, the world-systemic scale of environmental harm currently being perpetrated has led journalist Garry Leech to dub global climate change as an act of genocide directed against future generations. [2]

Life Saving Drinking Water Julien Harneis

Life Saving Drinking Water
(attribution: Julien Harneis)

Given that the threats directly against human and other life are openly acknowledged by all save the willfully ignorant and the perverse, what keeps global society in a holding pattern, unwilling to take the steps necessary to preserve its own existence? According to philosopher and legal scholar Laura Westra, this situation has arisen because, for the most part, “talk about human rights, outside the realm of armed conflict, centres on religious or sexual rights or the right to secede or acquire national status on the part of groups,” making the very fundamental right to life “if not obsolete, at least politically incorrect because of its possible conflict with other rights” (p. 12). In contrast to the regime of individual human rights that dominates current discourse (established primarily in reaction to the Holocaust), the rights Westra emphasizes in Human Rights: The Commons and the Collective are those embodied in the common good and measured by the standard of whether or not the wants and needs of a specific community or individual can be extended to the whole of humankind; for human rights to be universally defensible, they must be: “(1) basic… and in support of human biological integrity, and (2) minimally dependent on ecological integrity to ensure that (3) normal development such as the human capacity to think, understand, and choose is actualized according to the potential of each human being” (p. 21). Such rights as access to clean water and air hold primacy over others by the simple fact that one cannot, for example, be free to practice one’s religion or engage in other cultural activities if one lacks the conditions required for life and health.

Grounding her approach in natural law, Westra holds the common good and the public interest to be jus cogens—preemptory norms “from which no exception may be made, not even by consensus” (p. 56). These norms produce erga omnes obligations—that is, obligations owed to all. Westra’s collective is not a group or community but rather the whole of humanity. From the viewpoint of global society, actions not typically viewed as criminal much more easily reach that level of seriousness—meeting Card’s definition of evil—as with industrial pollution, which becomes recognized as an “ecocrime.” According to Westra, “ecocrimes are not sporadic, occasional offences; they are institutional forms of violence often practised through nonpoint pollution” carried out in the “negligent pursuit of other goals, mostly economic” (p. 76). After surveying the nature of communities and collectives, as well as the place of the individual therein, Westra concludes: “It is only in relation to indigenous communities that individual human rights and community rights are joined with the right to a specific territory, and the conditions of the territory are an integral part of those rights” (p. 134). Unfortunately, international organizations focus their energies primarily upon “raising” communities, especially indigenous groups, to “first-world” status without examining the implications. Such attitudes are embodied in the widely touted “right to development,” which does not take into consideration the right of a community not to develop if it chooses, or the fact that “sustainable development” is something of an oxymoron.

Colombia's Indigenous Wayuu Struggle with Water Shortages

Colombia’s Indigenous Wayuu Struggle with Water Shortages

Some may object to Westra’s insistence that the right to food, water, and a clean environment grounds all others, perhaps saying that such a view smacks of “base” materialism, that she reflects the spirit of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who so famously said, “Feed men, and then ask them of virtue!” [3] Current philosophers working in the liberal tradition have struggled to fashion the quest for basic rights into a more elevated vision; Steven Lecce, for example, observed: “Economic prosperity, social stability, and tolerance are not collective goals as lofty as are national glory, ethnic purity, or religious salvation, but they are no less worthy of pursuit for that reason, and certainly less costly in human terms.” [4] However, the means for societal change, in his liberal framework, continues to be individual choices, especially as manifest in consumption, for or against extant institutions, while among his not-so-lofty goals is economic prosperity, the reckless pursuit of which is currently wrecking the planet. Westra proves much more convincing when she writes that “the common good, or the good of collectivities, is far more than a theoretical position, for it is based on basic rights: it is therefore both a high moral ideal and the lowest common denominator among the interests shared by mankind” (p. 25). That is to say, feeding men is a virtue itself. Her own writing reflects other philosophers breaking from the liberal tradition, such as Roberto Esposito, who has called for the replacement of the old discourse of rights (as grounded in the problematic notion of personhood) with an ethic of obligation. [5]

For Westra, this ethic of obligation cannot be made manifest in current democratic institutions given that they do not support universalism: “Democracy is intended to give an equal voice to all citizens; however, the citizens of two conflicting countries cannot resolve their dispute by democratic means, for the democratic rule stops at the borders” (p. 176). Instead, Westra calls for a new kind of cosmopolitanism centered upon the United Nations, given that the UN “seems to remain the best possibility for a central governing institution at the head of an inclusive transnational constitutionalism, given that existing laws do not function as they should to protect the collective” (p. 263). Of course, as the author acknowledges, there do exist some problems with the “kingship of the UN,” namely that its current governance allows some countries to veto the human rights of others. Despite such weaknesses, the UN, for Westra, currently holds the only unitary authority and position from which can be recognized the fundamental truth: “Being free to pursue harmful practices does not render those who are harmed free” (p. 265).

Human Rights: The Commons and the Collective showcases Laura Westra’s deep scholarly background and prophetic voice as she combs the writings of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, among others, in order to fashion a cohesive moral vision, and then pairs that vision with a broad survey of relevant court cases, environmental and other injustices, and the international legal framework in order to demonstrate where we fall short in securing the collective rights of humanity, as well as where the potential lies for establishing structures that can secure human life and maybe even avert global disaster. Westra has produced a powerful book that demands the attention of not just policy makers but also—since this volume demands a richer understanding of democracy—the world citizenry at large, the very people who stand to lose the most if the current system continues unabated.


[1] Claudia Card, Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 110–114. Larry May also locates the unique harm of genocide in the nature of groups; see Genocide: A Normative Account, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[2] Garry Leech, Genocide: A Structure Genocide, London, Zed Books, 2012.

[3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, New York: Random House, 1933, p. 262.

[4] Steven Lecce, Against Perfectionism: Defending Liberal Neutrality, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008, p. 266.

[5] Roberto Esposito, Third Person, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2012.