Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The ethics of recognition
Palgrave Macmillan, $52 pb, 303 pp
This book seeks to bring together two late-twentieth-century obsessions: the language of human rights as it emerged in the aftermath of World War II and the so-called boom in life writing. The most obvious sites at which life narratives and human rights come together are the various tribunals and inquiries that some nations have recently held into aspects of their troubled pasts, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and our own Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. Both of these sites, or ‘venues’ as Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith prefer to call them, are covered in Human Rights and Narrative Lives: The Ethics of Recognition as part of a wide-ranging investigation into truth and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa, and contemporary struggles for indigenous rights in Australia. These much-discussed cases appear alongside three less prominent ones: prisoner rights in the US; the testimonies of ‘comfort women’ exploited by the Japanese military during the Pacific War; and narratives about the ‘new China’ in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The collection of case studies, covering the ‘West’ and the ‘non-West’, shows the uneven application of the language of human rights (illustrated most clearly in the chapter on prisoner rights in the US), as well as the unpredictable ways in which narrating lives might contribute to the recognition of rights.