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Book Review: Crimes Against Humanity by Geoffrey Robertson QC

Crimes Against Humanity book cover

Geoffrey Robertson QC is well known in the legal world for his work on high-profile cases. He appears frequently in the European Court of Human Rights and the Privy Council, and has served as a UN appeal judge at the war crimes court in Sierra Leone. With such an extensive CV, it’s no wonder that Robertson has penned a number of captivating books on his experiences.

Perhaps his best known title, Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice, draws on his passion for and expertise in international and human rights law, and assesses them both practically and philosophically in light of major human rights violations in modern history.

In this book, Robertson addresses the well-known struggles with and failures of international law, starting with the meaning of the phrase itself. He explains that by definition, unlike a rule of ethics, a law is something that is capable of enforcement. However, international law does not have this quality. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out those inalienable rights, there is no means by which adherence may be enforced. There is no international police force, and any form of intervention imposed to deal with infringements would disturb the sovereignty of the nation in question.

The words used by Robertson to describe his thoughts on the progress made in human rights in the 50 years following the adoption of the Declaration by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 are quite simple: an ‘appalling failure’.

The immeasurable number of atrocities committed in violation of these laws, that have gone unpunished is hard to grasp. Reading the history of such inaction from Robertson’s knowledgeable perspective is disheartening and worrying.

This sentiment is captured in the following:

‘Count up the results of 50 years of human rights mechanisms, 30 years of multi-billion dollar development programmes and endless high level rhetoric and the general impact is quite underwhelming…this is a failure of implementation on a scale that shames us all.’ –Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner

This book is an interesting and comprehensive account of both the history and current state of international law, and brings to light the great struggle ahead to develop a regime of implementation to protect those basic rights to which we are all entitled.

Despite this, Robertson vigorously asserts the vital importance of international law and the preservation and enforcement of human rights, and presses for a great level of recognition given to their implementation by politicians and diplomats the world over.

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