Book Review: Building A Just World Order

Alfred De Zayas, Building A Just World Order, Atlanta, GA, USA, Clarity Press, Inc., 2021, pp. ix + 466. ISBN: 978-1-949762-42-6, EBook IBSN: 978-1-949762-43-3.

Happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Bk. 2, ch. 4

Alfred-Maurice de Zayas is perhaps one of the more curious persons who has been associated with the United Nations. He is a Harvard educated US attorney that has worked for with a large New York City law firm. Together with his law degree he has history degrees from Harvard University, a B.A., and University of Göttingen, a Ph.D. He is a former legal officer for the United Nations’ Centre for Human Rights (today the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), where for more than two decades he oversaw the Human Rights Committee’s complaint procedure, and he is the president of a non-governmental organization. But that is only his work history. He is also a writer of fiction and poetry and co-author of a leading work on the jurisprudence of the Human Rights Committee.[1] In addition, he has been an adjunct law teacher at several universities and is an avid touring cyclist and blogger. He is the son of a Cuban migrant and an American Republican. The diversity and variety of his interests and experiences would stupefy members of any profession, but they are especially unusual in the rather stiff-collared domain of international diplomacy associated with the United Nations. De Zayas’ varied interests are reflected in the approach to international law and relations in his book Building A Just World Order (2021) that considers a rainbow of topics in an effort to contribute to a just international order.

Building a Just World OrderThis is not a law book, although it includes numerous reflections on the law. It is not a political science text even though it comments on numerous global problems of international relations, but without an attempt to reconcile these musings into formal methodological confines. It can perhaps best be described as utopian musings about the potential of international law and global political processes. On a whole it suggests what the international community could be if adhered to international law. Moreover, it suggests what the law could be, if, before it’s too late, the international community decides to adhere to its professed lofty principles of equality, justice, equity, non-discrimination, self-determination and numerous others that are enumerated in the book. While many would be fearful of authoring a book that both condemns and prescribes, De Zayas has had the courage to write such a book. It is the type of book that every generation needs.

Building A Just World Order is based largely on De Zayas’ recent endeavor: a six-year stint between 2012 and 2018 as the United Nations Human Rights Council’s first Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order. Although the Independent Expert is a voluntary post, the mandate-holder is chosen after a highly competitive process by which applicants are vetted for their competence as well as their political acceptability by UN Member States. The mandate also brings with it authority and a minimal level of resources. In his book, De Zayas recounts, and reproduces in large part, the reports he authored as the Independent Expert. The reports are already in the public domain, but the author supplements them with a good deal of additional commentary, elucidation, and conclusions. In doing so he weaves together a tapestry of thinking about some of the most pressing global issues accompanied by suggestions as to how to deal with them.

Some readers may view his efforts as unrealistic idealism, but it is also an idealism based on values that have been agreed by the international community in principle, although often not adhered to in practice. That seems to be De Zayas’ point. He repeatedly points out the hypocrisy of our governments agreeing to abide by lofty norms, but then failing to do so. In doing this, Building A Just World Order provides refreshingly honest reflections spurred by both a willingness of the author to speak with a uniquely independent voice as well as his expertise in and commitment to international human rights law.

There are parts of the book where the author’s honesty appears somewhat confusing. For example, while criticizing the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, he defends the United Nations Secretary General, who as he points out has been attacked by reputable human rights organizations.

In another example, Chapter Five on self-determination is devoted largely to the Catalonian struggle, which he clearly supports. De Zayas’ has also expressed support for the struggles of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Alaskan people, as well as other groups of indigenous peoples, all claiming self-determination. At the same time, he only briefly mentions the struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination. And he does not point out that the situation of Palestine is the longest unresolved serious situation of violation of the right to self-determination on the United Nations agenda.

The 480-page book consists of twelve chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. The Introduction describes de Zayas view of the mandate of the Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order and introduces the reader to his fourteen reports as that mandate-holder. He also alerts readers to the fact that he believes adherence to international human rights law to be the salvation for a world that is searching for common ground. At points, his statements are reminiscent of the those made during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, just after the founding of the United Nations. De Zayas’ grasp of history, especially that relating to human rights in their United Nations context is displayed in his recollection of important signposts in the development of human rights and his appreciation of western literature is displayed in his quotes from Horace, Goethe, Plutarch, and Frost, among others.

De Zayas is also quick to point out in the introduction that as Independent Expert he championed the causes of human rights declarations on the right to peace and the rights of peasants, a binding legal instrument concerning businesses responsibility for human rights, ecocide, a global bill of rights with an international court on human rights to enforce it, and a world parliamentary assembly. His preference for a world government is unabashedly on display. His actions as Independent Expert in support of these efforts, some of which came to fruition while he was in his post, are not described in great detail, although it is clear he was active in lobbying for some of these interests. More details about such activities might have added a realist tint to some of the aspirational statements, although constraints of confidentiality may have had to be balanced.

Chapter 1 describes De Zayas’ view of the mechanisms for the democratic pursuit of human rights or his mandate as Independent Expert. While he recalls the instructions provided by the UN Human Rights Council in creating the mandate, he adds an historical perspective, recounts some normative instruments that must guide the mandate, and recounts the several recommendations for achieving a democratic and equitable international order that he made in his maiden report. His reflections often echo calls that have been made for some time within the United Nations (for example, the need to reform the United Nations and the to make the World Bank and International Monetary Fund more inclusive and democratic). A few, however, go further, for example, the call upon States “to revise their budgetary priorities away from military expenditures and into the promotion and protection of human rights” (p. 41, item (f)). He close the first chapter with an inspirational quote from activist and author Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible; she is on her way… On a quiet day . . . I can hear her breathing” (p. 43).  Chapter 2 reflects on De Zayas’ own ‘Principles of International Order’, which were one of his major undertakings during his tenure as UN Independent Expert. Chapter 3 reviews the Declaration on the Right to Peace adopted by the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC Res. 20/15 of 5 July 2012) and subsequently the UN General Assembly (UN Doc. A/RES/71/189 of 2 February 2017). Chapter 4 is a critical review of military expenditures and how they threaten the protection of human rights. Chapter 5 discusses the right of self-determination of peoples, an issue that s close to De Zayas heart and for which he has been an advocate for diverse groups of peoples. Chapter 6 discusses the rule of law and the right to truth. Although based on his 2013 report to the Human Rights Council, this Chapter foreshadowed the rise of ‘false news’ stimulated by the Trump Administration after the 2016 election. Chapter 7 looks at the interference of mainly the United States in the internal affairs of other States.

Chapters 8 through 11 examine the relations ship between economic policies and institutions and human rights. Chapter 8 examines the relations between business and human rights, where in the author is critical of big business and its record of interference with individuals’ human rights. Chapter 9 examines the topic of taxation and human rights, which is critical to resolving inequalities in the world according to many developing countries and intergovernmental organizations such as the Group of 77 and South Centre that represent the interests of developing countries. Closely related to this, Chapter 10 discusses the role of the World Bank in no uncertain uncomplimentary terms. Chapter 12 is equally critical of the effect of IMF policies on human rights. Chapter 12 serves as an example of serval issues raised in previous chapters and is based on the Independent Expert’s mission to Venezuela in 2017 near the end of his mandate. Finally, there is a conclusion with reflections on the way forward.

While De Zayas critical commentary on the various relevant international themes enhances our understanding of factors that influence respect for basic human rights, the prescriptions offered in each chapter and in the conclusion often seem somewhat simplistic. Again, this seems to be De Zayas point: if we adhere to the basics the laws will work. This is also consistent with the books theme and rather than an impediment will be seen by many readers as a challenge to the international community to strive for something better based on the most basic principles of justice.

The book is well edited by Clarity Press and contains useful, but not exhaustive citations to materials relevant to the text. The use of a significant number of hyperlinks to Internet-based resources is sometimes frustrating as some links no longer work or have changed. Similarly, some citations lack the publisher or city of publication making the cited resources difficult to find. These failures of specificity are perhaps emblematic of what the author is trying to say and do. He paints with a broad brush and is inviting his readers not to focus on detail, but to reflect on the larger picture and what is at stake for humanity.

In the final chapter De Zayas re-emphasizes several critiques he has made throughout his book. For example, he repeats the criticism that “[t]he obsolete and artificial division of human rights into to those falsely called first generation (civil and political), second (economic, social and cultural) and third generation (environment, peace and development) rights—with its obvious predisposition to favor civil and political rights” (p. 452) and suggests an alternative of four groups of human rights. He suggests enabling rights (such as the rights to food, water, shelter, development, peace, and a healthy environment); inherent or immanent rights (the rights of life, liberty and security of person, and non-discrimination, adding integrity and equitably to these more traditional concepts); instrumental rights (such as the rights to due process, access to information, truth, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, work, education, social security, leisure…and one would suppose freedom of assembly and religion); and outcome rights (the right to privacy and identity). This last category De Zayas describes as

the concrete exercise of human dignity, that condition of life that allows each human being to be himself or herself. This ultimate right is the right to our individual identity, to our privacy, the right to be ourselves, to think for ourselves and express our humanity without indoctrination, without intimidation, without pressures of political correctness, without having to sell ourselves, without having to engage in self-censorship. (p. 453)

De Zayas sometimes uses with such broad imagery that he may draw the concern of especially lawyers and legal scholars whose usual practice is to focus on procedure and details. At the same time, however, he offers a refreshingly honest and common sense—even if very idealistic—evaluation of some of the most acute international problems facing humanity today. For those who like the world as it is or believe humankind has come as close to achieving its potential as it ever will, the book will undoubtedly be too unrealistically idealist. But to individuals who think the world can still improve in quite substantial ways, this book provides some useful advice and encouragement for building a just world order.

[1] Zayas, A.de, and Möller, J.T., Handbook: United Nations Human Rights Committee Case-Law 1977-2008, N.P. Engel Verlag, Kehl/Strasbourg, 2009.

Dr. Curtis F.J. Doebbler is Research Professor of Law in the Department of Law at the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone and proprietor of The Law Office of Dr Curtis FJ Doebbler. He holds law degrees from New York Law School (J.D.), Radboud Universiteit (Meestertitle, LL.M.), and the London School of Economics and Political Science (Ph.D.). He has published twelve books, more than two hundred academic and newspaper articles, and numerous online contributions. He is also a regular commentator on international law on television and radio news programmes. He represents the NGO International-Lawyers.Org at the United Nations and practices international law before domestic and international tribunals, advising and representing both governments and non-governmental actors. He has taught law at universities in the Middle East, Africa and Europe and is currently Research Professor of Law at the University of Makeni and a visiting professor of law at Webster University in Geneva. His books include The Dictionary of International Law (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) is from March 2018.

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