What happens when a publisher with a background in design and two leading international law theorists come together to create a book dealing with the not-so-slight topic of human rights? The Face of Human Rights is a hybrid form of textbook, which could become a new trend in dealing with such academic topics. The foreword proclaims the intentions of the editors in their attempt to encompass as much of the issue as possible in one volume – meaning not as much as they had hoped – yet does not lend any clues as to why the project was undertaken in the first place. Easily navigable – complete with red ribbon to mark your page – the book is divided into sections, each one dealing with one of the 13 human rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ranging from the broad “Right to Life” to less recognised and sustained “Right to Housing”. For ease of reference, these sections are also colour-coded. Interspersed between are white pages, which contain various essays, reports and profiles of leading activists. Apart from these, the remaining 700 odd pages of the book are visually saturated with photos and text extracts.

With regard to image choice, the eclectic mix seems to be haphazardly scattered throughout, with a noticeable over-presence of Magnum photographers. It seems that what was missing in this team of editors was one with experience in picture-editing. This is evident from the outset; the initial double page spread, a young girl strolling through a market in Nicaragua, is a curious choice and not that clear, both in terms of focus and meaning. Nevertheless, the book is based on facts and figures, and the majority of images chosen reiterate this.

The images work as they are intended, to illustrate the text, and in all fairness must have presented quite a task in researching and editing. Traditional “newsy” images predominate, with a fair amount of blood and horror – children in El Salvador watching a guerrilla being dragged through the street to his death, the aftermath of a bomb that exploded in a crowded market in Kosovo. But in the editors’ stated attempt to balance the debate, almost half of the images illustrate the enjoyment of human rights – from Martin Parr’s iconic, yet still cringeworthy, reportage on the excessive lifestyles of Brits and Americans, to activists freely enjoying their right to protest. The most thoroughly researched element is the text. We become witness to an overabundance of extracts ranging from court cases to reports from governmental to non-governmental organisations’ websites that have been put forth, spanning from the historical to 2004. Many have set familiar precedents but the depth of their injustice still resonates today – from the genocide in Rwanda to cases dealing with abortion laws. Thoughtfully chosen quotes by venerable historical and modern theorists are interspersed between international doctrines.

The following left a lasting impression: “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it is going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.” Robert M Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974.

The lesser-known injustices are perhaps the hardest to digest, especially when noting the recent dates of atrocities. Take, for example the issue of homophobia in Southern Africa, located in the “Prohibition of Discrimination” chapter, as illustrated in one horrific account of an HIV positive lesbian, Joyce. “My daughter was raped when she was six because of my coming out and telling people about HIV. They were trying to shut my mouth.” This was in 2003. Or a young girl’s experience of being born into slavery in Mauritania: she is one of the lucky few who got out and could tell their story. Nor, of course, is it only the less-developed world where such atrocities occur. In the essay, “Inside Death Row, Huntsville, Texas”, Margrit Spencer exposes the inhuman daily living conditions that are endured by inmates. Although there is no mention of Guantanamo Bay, it immediately springs to mind. Another essay directly following this, “Brotherhood and Unity” by Slavenka Drakulic, depicts life inside Scheveningen detention unit in The Hague, where Milosevic and fellow “detainees” (not criminals) enjoy a carefree existence in their luxury accommodation.

One of the things I found most curious about this book is the title. The “face” of human rights? It’s a simple enough phrase, but how does a word like “face” even begin to encompass the issues taken on in this gutsy project. If you take “face” to be defined as more of “façade” then the whole premise of the book begins to make sense.

International law is a virtually ineffective institution that lacks a solid means of enforcing any of its charters and declarations that serve merely as guidelines. Take the first few rights as mentioned in the book: “A protection of life in armed conflict” and “The prohibition of genocide”. It’s not easy to escape the irony. Despite this – and this is one of the book’s most interesting qualities – the editors seem to take a largely optimistic view on the issues. At the end of each chapter we are reminded of what both the international and civil society are doing to overcome injustice, the latter usually having more examples to support it. There are even extremely hopeful suggestions for world improvement put forward. One recommendation from the Food and Agriculture Organisation website that rice farmers also use their fields for harvesting fish, sheds new hope on the international crisis of food production and hunger.

This important work of literary and visual significance is one that needs to be experienced and grasped on a personal level. As suggested in the foreword, every person reacts to the news of human rights violations in a different manner and “Depending on our character we get sad, angry or have to avert our eyes as these events become insupportable.” This piece is no different. Due to its magnitude, you will take out of it only the issues and instances that profoundly move or disturb you. Although dedicated to the human rights activists of the world, the editors do not force guilt of inaction upon the reader. Through the compiling of this information, education is at the forefront of understanding and advocacy. 

Lauren Heinz