What role do Human Rights play in International politics today? Essay

“It was once the case that rights were almost always associated with domestic legal and political systems, in the last half century a complex network of international law and practice has grown up around the idea that individuals posses rights simply by virtue of being human”.1

This concept of individual rights developed out of the ‘natural rights’ theories and were thought to be God-given, an assumption also taken by classical Liberalism. “In the seventeenth century, John Locke, [a theorist of the social contract] identified natural rights as the right to ‘life, liberty and property’, a century later Thomas Jefferson defined them as the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'”.2 The protection of individual rights has often been taken from political theory and made into laws and public policy in societies.

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However the decline of religious belief in the twentieth century has lead to the idea of natural rights theories being reborn in the form of what is now known as ‘human rights’,3 rights in-which people are entitled to by virtue of being human. In-turn this means that rights are universal and should belong to all humans despite their nation/ race etc.

This essay attempts to discuss the role of human rights in international politics today by looking at the extent in-which human rights legislation, organisations and all round commitment to protect individual rights has grown in the last half century. “Today, governments and international institutions claim human rights as one of the essential pillars of the international system, and they are claimed in the same breath as peace, democracy and the rule of law”.4 In-turn this has made the concept of human rights very broad and although this development of putting the value of human dignity above the search for economic gain has generally been seen as a positive one there has been some speculation as to the motives behind them.

Therefore, this essay will also discuss some of the criticisms of human rights and its implications on the international system as well as domestic law, focusing on several debates which include the promotion of ‘universal’ rights and the high profile debate of human rights verses Asian values. The concept of a world society and its implications on the traditional notion of sovereignty and accountability. As well as considering question of who benefits and the more sceptical side of the human rights debate in-which critics claim can be used as an excuse by the West to justify intervention.

Traditionally international practice has lacked even the language with which to condemn the horrors and the atrocities of the Second World War. However “the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked the beginning of the modern human rights regime”5 “and set a common set of principles against which the human rights practices of individual member states could be measured”.6 It’s aim was to establish a system which transcended national boundaries7 “and not only included “classical ‘negative’ rights, like the right to ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’, but also ‘positive’ rights such as the ‘right to work’ and the ‘right to education”.8

However if the post-1945 human rights regime had been taken seriously, it would have created a universal system where all states involved would have been obliged to conform to quite a rigid template that would have dictated most aspects of their political, social, and economic structures.9 As we know this has not happen and although “conventional defenders of human rights argue that this would be a Good Thing”10 others have challenge the idea of universalism or cosmopolitan norms altogether.

“It was probably inevitable that Western Europe and North America would set the agenda for the post-Cold war world…[and] with the collapse of communism there was no other large-scale ideological vision left in the political marketplace.”11 However this dominance of Western ideology in the international system did lead to resentment, especially amongst the leaders of South-East Asia in the 1990’s.

This resentment was reflected in the Bangkok Declaration, 1993, which stated that “western notions of human rights were seen as excessively individualistic, as opposed to the stress on the family of Asian societies, and insufficiently supportive (if not downright hostile to) religion”.12 However Ken Booth in, Human Rights and Global Politics, argues that “the spread of a human rights culture… can not simply be explained in power political terms- by the domination of the West”13 and instead suggest that “human rights speak to the age of industrialisation, dislocation and globalisation….as being right, as other life enhancing ideas have spoken to other people at other times”.14

Booth also suggests that critics of universalism have ignored the extent in which it already exists as even human rights abusers feel the need to justify their actions to other international states and organisations and do not totally reject it.15 Research evidence by cultural sociologist/writers has also suggested that “similar conceptions regarding… right and wrong behaviour and duties and obligations towards other people”16 are universal.

In reality a total rejection of universal rights would not only be patronising to the people of developing countries many of whom would appreciate political freedom but also “play into the hands of repressive regimes who want to deny civil and political rights,”17 leaving the conclusion usually derived from this argument as, “either the search for human dignity has to develop another route…or that universalism must be conceived very thinly, allowing local cultures…to interpret rights in their own ways”.18

Then what is the future for international Human Rights?

The notion of universal rights has been taken one step further by Cosmopolitan theorists, who believe that “rights should be the subject of international decision-making by new flexible frameworks based on the rights of global citizens”.19 There is no doubt that globalization has led to a renewed interest in alternative forms of a political world order and there also lies a powerful argument in favour of cosmopolitan democracy which hopes of a more stable international community and the upholding of public law20.

However cosmopolitan regulation would undermine the notion of state sovereignty as they emphasize ‘new’ rights of intervention which would enable powerful states to take up interventionist duties on behalf of the global citizen. By definition, the cosmopolitan citizen has no fixed territorial identity and is represented through the campaign work of non-governmental organisations21 attracting criticism which argues that this would not result in citizens gaining anymore power over the influence of policy making and would in-fact disadvantage them, as they would no longer be able to hold their own governments to account.

This more radical way of thinking of human rights in international politics helps to highlight one of the problems with extending the concept of rights beyond the bounds of the sovereign state and has also been used by critics to express the dangers of western domination raising speculation into the motives behind this rise for an international human rights regime.

The 1989 International Children’s Rights Regime has also been hailed as part of an “evolving system of global governance”22 and has also been criticised for “legitimizing a new era of authoritarianism and inequality”.23 Again cultural relativist critiques have criticised the underlining approach as reflecting Anglo-American social policy24 but more importantly it has been also been seen as holding “gave consequences for the rights and freedoms of children and adults alike and in neither of their interests”.25 One example is the over protection of children’s play in British and US schools which in effect leads towards adult-led activity with adult-set goals, thereby denying experiences vital for their development.26

However the regime has shown the increasingly important role of non-governmental organisations when drafting the Convention and their influences on developing countries in setting international ‘norms’. It has also been seen as “a shift towards a more universal and empowering framework of domestic and international relations” as “children’s rights are treated as having the force of international law by international policy-makers who are now prepared to override long-standing principles, of national sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs, in their name”.27

“Since 1945 the hegemonic ideology in the discipline of International Relations has been political realism, which of cause has not been comfortable with the idea of human rights”.28 In the content of international co-operation it was agreed upon that non-interference would continue to be regarded as an essential aspect of sovereignty. In-turn the equal rights of all members of the United Nations to protect them from external interference in domestic arrangements protected weaker states in the international system but has also had lasting implications on any international human rights regime.

The “doctrine of non-intervention has [also] created an inversion of the traditional security dilemma in many states, particularly post-colonial and post-communist states”29 as the threat is more likely to come from within, making it difficult for international organisations such as the UN to do anything. In-turn, “policy makers and institutional actors have been criticized for failing to act on behalf of human rights in some areas of the world or when they have acted, been criticized for being too slow…or taking half-measures”.

However the extending role of human rights in international law has lead many “leading lawyers and theoreticians to call for the return to moral principles and an ‘international social idealism’, establishing universal norms of human rights legislation, which can be ruled on by an international judiciary”30 preventing political and military leaders escaping accountability for human right abuses.

Opposing critics have suggested that the “development of international tribunals will not necessarily led to a more just world”31 as international bodies may not always be objective or non-political. Evidence supporting this claim has focused on the behaviour of the International Criminal Tribunal which was criticised for exercising doubled standards. One example of this is the war against Yugoslavia by NATO which was “waged in the name of universal standards”32 and human rights whilst Russian attacks on rebels in Chechnya was tolerated.

After NATO’s war against Yugoslavia, NATO “claimed the moral right to intervene unilaterally against sovereign states because of their domestic policies, something specifically ruled out by the United Nations Charter”.33 In recent times, America’s war on Iraq was again waged in the name of human rights but many have criticised the lack of international support and the implications it will have on the future of the UN and the future relationship between the West and the East. Equally, the issue of military intervention in terms of whether intervention is ‘legal’ depends on the “perspectives and interests’ of those involved”.34

In-turn this has raised new questions into the notion of state sovereignty and fears that “if sovereignty is discarded as a concept, as human rights ideologues demand it should be, then power will be wielded without responsibility”.35

However in October 2000, the UK integrated into its domestic law the European Convention on Human Rights, in December 2000, the Clinton administration signed the Rome Treaty on the International Criminal Court, all of which suggest an increasing “consensus that the doctrine of universal human rights should override the traditional privileges of states and their parliaments”.36

However it has been argued that “these attempts to replace domestic with international jurisdictions can only lead to greater arbitrary rule and to further erosion of the rule of law”37, as “the attempt to separate statehood from law is based on a misrepresentation of the true relationship between law and state”38.

“The concept of human rights is seen by many commentators as establishing a radical framework for progressive change in international relations”39 as it contains powerful interrelated ideas. Although this essay has only touched on some of the issues concerning human rights in the international system today it has outline the main ideas of universalism, morality and sovereignty.

It is difficult to see clearly the ways in which the international human rights regime may develop as cosmopolitan theories have been seriously challenged and the desire to enforce universal standards has also been criticised. However although the policy of state sovereignty is still a powerful universal idea it is increasingly being questioned by normative approaches for a new world order.

“Given the importance of human rights issues and the ways of responding to critics of universalism, [it is believed that] the subjects of human rights and world citizenship merit a more secure place in the International Relations and Politics curricula”.40

1 John Baylis ;Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics; An introduction to international relations, 2nd ed. (United States: Oxford University Press, 2001) P 599

2 Andrew Heywood, Political Theory; An Introduction, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999) P 191

3 Andrew Heywood, Political Theory; An Introduction, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999) P 191

4 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 1

5 http://homepage.mac.com/vicfalls/symbabi/hr/humanrights03.html 18.3.03

6 Thomas Risse at el. The Power of Human Rights; International norms and domestic change, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) P 234

7 Axford at el, An introduction, Politics 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2002) P 37

8 Andrew Heywood, Political Theory; An Introduction, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999) P 194 Andrew Heywood, Political Theory; An Introduction, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999) P 191

9 John Baylis ;Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics; An introduction to international relations, 2nd ed. (United States: Oxford University Press, 2001) P 61

10 John Baylis ;Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics; An introduction to international relations, 2nd ed. (United States: Oxford University Press, 2001) P 610

11 James Mayall, World Politics; Progress and it’s limits, (USA: Blackwell Publishers Inc. 2000) P 107

12 John Baylis &Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics; An introduction to international relations, 2nd ed. (United States: Oxford University Press, 2001) P 610

13 Booth al el. Human Rights in Global Politics, (United Kingdom: Cambrigde University Press, 1999) P 54

14 Booth al el. Human Rights in Global Politics, (United Kingdom: Cambrigde University Press, 1999) P 54

15 Booth al el. Human Rights in Global Politics, (United Kingdom: Cambrigde University Press, 1999) P 59

16 Booth al el. Human Rights in Global Politics, (United Kingdom: Cambrigde University Press, 1999) P 59

17 Booth al el. Human Rights in Global Politics, (United Kingdom: Cambrigde University Press, 1999) P 54

18 18 Booth al el. Human Rights in Global Politics, (United Kingdom: Cambrigde University Press, 1999) P 58

19 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 118

20 John Baylis &Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics; An introduction to international relations, 2nd ed. (United States: Oxford University Press, 2001) P 627

21 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 125

22 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 58

23 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 58

24 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 59

25 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 74

26 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 73

27 27 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P60

28 Booth al el. Human Rights in Global Politics, (United Kingdom: Cambrigde University Press, 1999) P 35

29 John Baylis &Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics; An introduction to international relations, 2nd ed. (United States: Oxford University Press, 2001) P 47

30David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 38

31 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 38

32David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 43

33 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 40

34 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 132

35 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 52

36 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 41

37 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 55

38 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 54

39 David Chandler, Rethinking Human Rights; Critical approaches to international politics, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) P 2

40 Booth al el. Human Rights in Global Politics, (United Kingdom: Cambrigde University Press, 1999) P 342

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