A primary purpose of a human rights theory is to provide a foundation from which the actual and complete nature of human rights can be gleaned. Particularly for rights that are controversial or do not enjoy widespread consensus, a human rights theory provides a system for understanding what rights exist or should exist and what rights contain or should contain. The most predominant theories of human rights are based in law, politics and morality. Patrick Macklem's The Sovereignty of Human Rights proposes a new theory of human rights devised to bypass the shortcomings of those predominant theories. He argues that sovereignty is a better foundation for understanding human rights because sovereignty and its distribution in the international legal order has given rise to the need for certain rights to exist. The exercise of sovereign power by individuals also influences how human rights are implemented within state borders. He maintains that understanding the adverse effects of sovereignty and its distribution yields greater insight than other theories into why human rights exist, what they contain, and how they should be implemented.
Following a brief summary of Macklem's argument, the review examines how his theory compares with the predominant theories of human rights, particularly in light of the shortcomings of those theories. The review outlines Macklem's position that the adverse effects of sovereignty can clarify the international community's understanding of why human rights are necessary and what forms of protection they include. The review then examines how Macklem's theory corresponds with traditional classifications of human rights, which depict such rights in terms of generations. Finally, the review concludes with reflections on the theory and poses new questions raised by Macklem's theory of human rights.