This book does exactly what it claims: it attempts to develop a theory of human rights. Perry suggests that a theory of human rights should deal with three basic issues. First, the moral foundation of human rights. Second, the normative relationship between the morality and the law of human rights. Third, the institutional arrangements that best protect human rights.
To each of these three issues Perry offers very stimulating, and conspicuously controversial, treatment. He argues that the moral foundation of human rights can be defined in terms of the principle of dignity and inviolability of each human being. The trouble is, Perry argues, that secular people cannot offer a proper justification of dignity and inviolability. The only sound rationale is religious.
Once the foundation established, the following step is to explain in what way the morality of human rights influences the law of human rights. This is inextricably linked to the two claims of inherent dignity and inviolabililty. In legal terms, it means that those who commit to that morality will have to do all they can to enact laws that do not violate human beings, and refrain from relying on laws that do violate human beings.
Perry takes three areas to illustrate his claims. Death penalty, Abortion, and Same sex unions. Not afraid of challenging conventional understanding, he argues that his morality of human rights requires that death penalty be abolished. It requires that the pre-viability abortions be banned; and that same sex unions be recognised.
All this, however, is not as straightforward as it looks in normative terms. For, the institutional perspective nuances the general picture in many ways. The main question is to know what role should the courts play. Perry argues that the US system of judicial review coupled with judicial supremacy, gives excessive powers to courts. In other words, he disapproves of judicial ‘ultimacy,’ the fact that the US supreme court has the last word on the most controversial issues. Instead, he favours something close to the Canadian system, that he deems a system of judicial ‘penultimacy.’ The Supreme Court expresses itself on controversial issues, but the parliament can, if it wants, overrule the court’s decision thanks to the Canadian ‘notwithstanding clause.’ Perry presents this solution as an elegant compromise that conciliate judicial review with democratic participation. He says the same for the UK HRA 1998.
In the US, judicial ultimacy is not likely to be removed. To mitigate its effect, Perry suggests that court should adopt a deferential attitude along the lines proposed by James Bradley Thayer. Roughly, thayerian deference requires courts to apply the rule of the clear mistake—that is, interference only when the statute is clearly wrong. Thayerian deference is not grounded on the belief that the legislative or the executive are better equipped to take hard decisions. Thayer believes instead that a non-deferential system of judicial ultimacy would render citizens less politically and morally awake. Institutions may make mistakes and the way to redress them is to fight political battles not to devolve all the power to review those decisions to courts.
How does this affect the treatment of the relevant issues from the US point of view? Death penalty violates the constitution, but the court should so rule only if it believes that the legislator has made a clear mistake. Pre-viability Abortion violates the constitution, but the same caveat applies. Finally, the ban on same sex unions is unconstititutional, but court should be deferential along the same lines.
Perry’s book is very welcome. He is right to insist from the beginning to the conclusion that the work on theories of human rights has just begun. His contribution will no doubt advance the debate because it focuses on central issues without seeking approval. His theses are clearly exposed and highly controversial. The debate can begin.
It should begin and take place globally. And here’s my first criticism to Perry’s book. As many Anglo-American scholars, he ignores almost entirely the debates in non-english speaking countries. Most of European countries have produced fine scholarship on these issues, and a lot of this material is also available in English. One example above all is Robert Alexy’s Theory of Constitutional Rights, translated in English and published by OUP.
This leads to a second point. One may argue that Perry draws a distinction between Human Rights and Constitutional Rights. He may then claim that theories have been produced on the latter but not on the former. Indeed, at the beginning he seems to concentrate on international human rights as opposed to domestic constitutional rights. But by the end of the book it is clear, that the morality of human rights he finds in the international arena should also apply domestically, say at the level of the US Supreme Court.
I would find such a distinction helpful as it could underline another major difference between international human rights and domestic constitutional rights. The latter are nowadays well protected precisely because of judicial review, while the former are far away from being effectively protected. This may also point to the fact that Perry’s criticism to judicial review is exaggerated. One may suggest, not so foolishly, that liberal democracies came to protect constitutional rights so robustly precisely because of judicial review. If anything, the UK example shows that during Thatcher’s government rights were not respected and judges had little weapons to fight back. Moreover, parliament was incapable to stand alone for the rights of the citizens. It is such an abuse that led the labour government to entrench rights and to protect them through judicial review.
Now Perry could say that the HRA does not introduce a system of judicial ultimacy, but only an elegant compromise between parliamentary sovereignty and judicial review. Whether that is an elegant compromise, I have many doubts. Whether it will work in the long run, it is another open issue. The HRA is in the eyes of many either too much or too little. It is too much in the very eyes of those who have entrenched it and then complained that it bound excessively the executive in its war against terrorism. Its too little in the eyes of many advocates who fought for a bill of rights, Lord Lester for example, and thought that the HRA could be a first step toward a fully entrenched and fully reviewable bill of rights.
The most controversial of all issue, however, is that of the foundation of rights. Many liberal philosophers, starting from Rawls and Habermas, have amply shown that our secular democracies have borrowed a lot from religious concepts. Dignity and inviolability of human beings may well be concepts of Christian origins, but our societies have translated those concepts to our secular frameworks. This is not to deny their Christian root, to the contrary. But liberal democracies, beyond translation, also made possible the effective protection of dignity and inviolability of human beings. This was not true of the period preceding the establishment of liberal democracies, which we could deem the age of the Res Publica Christiana. During those ages, dignity and inviolability of human beings might have been already strong Christian principles, but their violation in practice also was very common. We may say, therefore, that liberal democracies brought to a totally different stage those principles, and to a certain extent the Church is catching up with the recognition of the importance of the consequences that we may want those principles to have.
Thus, liberal democracies not only translated those principles, but they also transformed them into tools for the improvement of the society. Religion can claim part of merit, but it also has to acknowledge the intrinsic merits of liberalism, as far as the redefinition and concrete protection of those principles is concerned.
To engage with Perry’s book does not detract anything to its quality. To the contrary, the quest for a proper theory of human rights should probably start there.