Ppdf-icon-1atrick Macklem, The Sovereignty of Human Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) 259 pages.

Author: Umut Özsu


A great deal of ink has been spilled over the years about sovereignty and human rights. Both concepts have long pedigrees, and both have been examined from an exceptionally wide range of perspectives. In The Sovereignty of Human Rights, Patrick Macklem attempts to develop a novel approach to both concepts (and the relation between them). In his view, the central “purpose of international human rights law is to identify and mitigate adverse effects of the structure and operation of the international legal order.” That is to say, human rights—which are typically framed as rights of individuals and non-state collectivities—are designed to “monitor the distribution and exercise of sovereign power to which international law extends legal validity.” If international law is a system that allocates and regulates the assertion of sovereign authority, human rights, on Macklem’s account, are the rules and principles that assess the legitimacy and ameliorate the deficiencies of this system. Put differently, for Macklem, human rights are palliative responses to especially significant shortcomings of an international legal order that is unlikely to be replaced within the foreseeable future and is staunchly resistant to top-to-bottom transformation. To a significant degree, Macklem’s argument is a contribution to a long-standing tradition of legal structuralism: it is the “structures” of the international legal order that must be scrutinized, and it is in relation to these “structures” (and the way that they operate and change over time) that human rights law is to be positioned and interrogated.

From Aboriginal and constitutional law to labour and public international law, Macklem has long been at the forefront of a range of debates concerning the complex relation between law and inequality. The Sovereignty of Human Rights gives full expression to this breadth and erudition. …

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Recommended Citation:

Umut Özsu, Book Review of The Sovereignty of Human Rights by Patrick Macklem, (2016) 5:1 Can J Hum Rts 135.