Failing to Protect

The UN and the Politicisation of Human Rights

May 2014 9781849044097 224pp


Every year tens of millions of individuals suffer grave abuses of their human rights. These violations occur worldwide, in war-torn countries and in the wealthiest states. Despite many of the abuses being well-documented, little seems to be done to stop them from happening. The United Nations was established to safeguard world peace and security, development, and human rights yet it is undeniable that currently it is failing to protect the rights of a great many people –– from the victims of ethnic cleansing, to migrants, those displaced by war and women who suffer horrendous abuse. This book looks at the reasons for that failure. Using concrete examples intertwined with explanations of the law and politics of the UN, Rosa Freedman offers clear explanations of how and why the Organisation is unable, at best, or unwilling, at worst, to protect human rights. Written for a non-specialist audience, her book also seeks to explain why certain countries and political blocs manipulate and undermine the UN’s human rights machinery. Failing to Protect demonstrates the urgent need for radical reform of the machinery of human rights protection at the international level.

Table of contents

Author’s Note

1. International Law: What Law?
2. The UN: A Brief Explanation
3. International Humanitarian Law, Criminal Law, Human
Rights Law
4. Universal Rights or Cultural Relativism?
5. UN Human Rights Machinery
6. Look! We Did Something: South Africa and Israel
7. Stop Shouting, Start Helping: Post-colonialism, Human
Rights and Development
8. Human Rights of Migrants: What Rights?
9. The ‘Great’ Powers
10. Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Hidden Abuses Across the
11. The ‘Good Guys’
12. It is Not All Doom and Gloom
13. Alternatives: A Radical Proposal
14. Alternatives: A Less Radical Alternative
15. Alternatives: Reform



‘If you want a short, readable guide to a field you feel you need to know a bit about, and an argument to react to as well, then this is the book for you.’ — Conor Gearty, Times Higher Education

‘Set up in 1945 as an organisation of, by, and for states, the United Nations has never made good on the human rights ideals its charter first proclaimed. As Rosa Freedman shows in this excellent book, organised hypocrisy persists, in spite of the creation of a new Human Rights Council in 2006 to overcome a checkered past. Freedman’s sobering account demonstrates why more creative thinking about new approaches is a critical task for our time.’ — Samuel Moyn, Harvard University, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

‘This book is a great introduction to the international protection of human rights and a realistic assessment of the strengths and limitations of the present UN human rights system. Rosa Freedman offers an imaginative exploration of the solutions available for overcoming such limitations, and a heartfelt call for more citizen involvement in reforming a system, which is, after all, ours.’ — François Crépeau, FRSC, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Professor in Public International Law, McGill University

‘This is a refreshingly direct take on what is wrong with the international human rights regime. Rosa Freedman’s writing is low on jargon and high on perceptive critique and practical suggestions. This is a book for the interested public in whose name the UN acts and fails to act.’ — Hugo Slim, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, University of Oxford and author of Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War

‘The various cases of mass human rights violations cited in this book show the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge…The book has certainly fulfilled its aim of starting “a conversation amongst the wider public” (p. xi) by allowing the layperson to question many aspects of the international human rights machinery.’  Shazelina Zainul Abidin, E-International Relations

‘Making use of a wealth of observations, insights, and examples, Freedman guides her reader through the UN human rights machinery. Failing to Protect is accessible and a good starting point for a non-specialist audience hoping to learn more about human rights protection.’ — Ruth Houghton, Leiden Journal of International Law


Rosa Freedman is a lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham. She is the author of The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment and has published many academic and media articles on the UN, international law and human rights.

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