Globalizing Concern for Women's Human Rights: The Failure of the American Model.
It is difficult to argue with Diana Zoelle's claim that liberal democracy, as conceived and developed in the United States, is a problematic model in globalizing concern for women's human rights. Moreover, when she suggests that U.S. ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), although not a panacea for the attainment of full equality, would constitute an important step toward alleviating women's oppression, she is probably correct. Finally, although her claim that the potential currently exists to accord human rights to all people in a world community that is less torn apart by bipolar enmity, less subverted by ideological tensions, and less compromised by the economic priorities of multinational corporations is probably not correct, one cannot help wishing that it were.
It is difficult to disagree with most of Zoelle's arguments, but one is left with the feeling that a great deal more needs to be said. Indeed, the subject of her book--the failure of liberalism, especially in the United States, to deliver women's human rights--is of great importance and has tremendous potential. Yet, too many pages are devoted to long appendices and annotated articles of CEDAW; much of what remains is undertheorized in the extreme. Not until the last chapter is the reader introduced, in a most cursory way, to the central conceptual debates that bear heavily on the topic of this book, such as the relationship between liberal democracy and capitalism; the postmodern ideas of identity/difference, self/other; and the feminist debates about the relevance of "rights talk" to the moral and social lives of women. Moreover, the book puts forward a potentially radical and even original thesis, but the end result is neither. Zoelle is ostensibly critical of liberal democracy, yet she seems to find the whole idea of universal human rights beyond question. A more thorough and profound interrogation of the notion of rights as a moral concept, as well as of the political relationship between rights and power, could perhaps have made this interesting and important book a magnificent one.
Globalizing Concern for Women's Human Rights is organized into five chapters, and includes the full text of CEDAW as an appendix. Zoelle begins by arguing that U.S. civil rights legislation has failed in its task of correcting past discrimination against women and racial minorities. She claims that civil rights are different from and secondary to human rights; the latter are universal and incontrovertible, whereas the former are augmentary, supplemental, and subject to the vagaries of politics. The United States has limited itself to an emphasis on civil rights but has failed to take seriously the human rights of its own citizens, while simultaneously choosing to police the behavior of states that have ratified international treaties.
Zoelle raises some important points in this chapter; indeed, perhaps her most insightful claim here is that liberal democracy, as it exists in the United States, is structured around exclusion and oppression. "Further, because the practice of exclusion is not simply civil and legal, but is also sociopolitical, economic, and cultural, more is required to alleviate these problems than civil remedies" (p. 15). This is certainly a crucial argument, but Zoelle's distinction between civil and human rights is perhaps too strongly made. When she states that "civil rights discourse ... disregards social and economic preconditions for unequal treatment and civil laws are certainly no substitute for inherent human rights" (p. 16), she seems unaware that this argument can and has been leveled at human rights discourse as well, by both feminist and nonfeminist critics. (See chapters by Tony Evans, Spike Peterson and Laura Parisi, Caroline Thomas, and Anthony McGrew and John Galtung in Tony Evans, ed., Human Rights Fifty Years On: A Reappraisal, 1998).
Chapter 2 examines the U.S. record on women's human rights and argues that CEDAW is the best means available to articulate a commitment to the rights of women in particular. Zoelle rehearses now familiar (yet still important) feminist arguments regarding the public/private dichotomy in liberalism and state complicity in systematic human rights violations against women. Chapter 3 discusses the ongoing debate regarding difference among women and the problem of constructing a coherent voice in the expression of "women's" concerns. The arguments are clearly stated, and the key issues are highlighted, but Zoelle's position lacks rigorous theoretical support. When she claims that "it is not difference that must be eradicated but the attendant asymmetry in power arrangements" (p. 64), the reader is left unsure of the conceptual starting points that lead her to this conclusion. Indeed, when Zoelle makes the bold, and somewhat paradoxical, claim that "diversity is a fundamental truth" (p. 64), she seems to be appealing at once to poststructuralist approaches as well as to a kind of moral and epistemological absolutism.
Chapter 4 takes a slight turn to examine U.S. foreign policy vis-a-vis human rights. Zoelle describes as "perplexing" the record of the United States on arms sales, economic assistance to oppressive regimes, and support of U.S.-based multinational corporations in highly repressive nations. Again, it is certainly to her credit that she makes these arguments, yet it is disappointing that she has not drawn on the bounteous literature that offers some credible explanations for these "perplexing" activities. (See Tony Evans, U.S. Hegemony and the Project of Universal Human Rights, 1996, and Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Political Economy of Hurnan Rights, 1979).
The final chapter is in many ways the best. Zoelle begins to engage with theoretical and conceptual arguments and introduces some important debates within feminism, liberalism, and human rights theory. The relationship between democracy and capitalism is finally mentioned, but the tone is more assertive than analytical: "Liberal democracy in conjunction with a market economy fails to address the situation of those within the state who have been, historically and globally, denied full access to the institutions and instruments that regulate their lives" (p. 106).
The spread of capitalism and liberal democracy worldwide seems to contradict Zoelle's earlier claim that "the potential exists to accord human rights to all people in a world that is ... less compromised by the economic priorities of multinational corporations" (p. 4). Curiously, her brief discussion of global capitalism and the exclusion for which it is responsible is followed almost immediately by a reference to the poststructuralist arguments of David Campbell, who regards exclusion, by contrast, in discursive terms: "identity is achieved through the inscription of boundaries that serve to demarcate an inside from an outside, a self from an other, a domestic from a foreign" (quoted in Zoelle, p. 107). Some theoretical consideration of materialist versus discursive analysis is surely needed here. This is also true of the hugely important question raised but not explored on page 111: "Can a rights discourse serve as a vehicle for expression of women's claims?" Indeed, that this question is even worth posing demonstrates the potential fragility of the premise on which Zoelle's entire project is based. Even if the author would answer the question in the affirmative, as I believe she would, by engaging with the feminist criticisms of rights-based approaches she would have strengthened the arguments of her ambitious and important book.
Fiona Robinson, Carleton University