Rights and justice in international relations
Rights and justice in international relations

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Rights and justice in international relations

7 Conclusion

One might think of the different interpretations of internationally recognised notions of rights and justice as running along a spectrum, from which we shall now identify four different positions.

  • The first interpretation would argue that, overall, the extension of rights to the international sphere has been benign and effective. It has led and will lead to further successful claims for justice.

Evidence for the development of a globalised rights agenda is found, for instance, in the 1995a UN Report of the Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighbourhood. The report recommended that international policy making should increase its focus on global concerns such as war, poverty, the rights of children, women and minorities, and the environment. The emphasis given to universal concerns over national ones is sustained by the claim of the globalised nature of key issues. Examples include the spread of HIV/AIDS, international terrorism, ozone depletion and international drug trafficking. According to this viewpoint, a cosmopolitan approach to rights need not necessarily lead to intervention.

  • The second interpretation might say that the UN Charter and other declarations are successful in employing and promoting a common universal language, but a gap between theory and practice persists. Problems remain with developing effective mechanisms to translate those universal principles into concrete practices.

One concern is that there is no guarantee that the development of a structure of international institutions designed to implement human rights and international justice would always be driven by moral values, free from the intervention of power politics and national self-interest. It is hard to see how a structure of international institutions based on moral norms could protect itself from reinterpretation in terms of power politics under pressure of blandishments and threats. Some of the interventions in the international society of states initiated by President George W. Bush, for instance, raise concerns for a rights-based international framework remaining independent, rather than being interpreted to coincide with the national interest of the remaining world superpower.

Chris Brown also raises the problem of compliance. He argues that, over the last 50 years, ‘the growth of an international human rights regime based on the idea that human rights should be internationally protected has been striking, and seems a prime example of globalisation’. However, he notes, ‘the record of compliance with human rights law is patchy, and states seem unwilling to give international action in support of human rights a high priority’. The problem of ‘compliance’ is that of translating the legal obligations of states into actions and policy changes that implement the rights. Brown concludes that, in the current century ‘only a limited notion of human rights will be defensible – or perhaps human rights will have to be defended in explicitly cultural terms’ (Brown, 2001, p. 599).

  • The third position might argue that the notions of ‘rights’ and ‘justice’ are too slippery and context-specific to constitute a meaningful form of communication.

The idea of the intractability of incommensurable difference (apples cannot be measured in terms of oranges) leads to the view that rights and justice are culturally specific and cannot, and should not, be applied across borders. This is, to some extent, the burden of the communitarian position discussed above.

Moreover, we saw in Section 5.1 that things change as we move from the national to the international level as the focus for realising universal human rights. Rights and justice, when applied to the international sphere which is considered as an arena of politics in its own right, can refer both to international actors such as states and economic organisations, and to individuals and groups. There is likely to remain a tension between the rights of individuals and the rights and sense of justice of international actors.

  • Finally, the fourth interpretation might say that the notion of universal rights and justice is untenable, its grandiose claims bankrupt, and its recent strengthening dangerous.

This interpretation forefronts the idea that establishing the levels of international social justice and legal retributive instruments is a matter for debate between conflicting perspectives in the public domain. A range of different states, NGOs, social movements and other international actors will all have views which deserve a proper hearing. The application of abstract and universal standards of rights and justice always needs to be mediated by interpretation, and interpretations can be widely divergent.

Yet in addition to this spectrum of the interpretations of rights and justice, and in the light of novel and radical developments in international politics like the ICC, the question we arrive at is whether the rights project is now unstoppable or whether it will, in time, be tempered by communitarian concerns. If the shape of the future does indicate a move from an international rights advocacy to a full-blown global rights culture and project, this is likely to remain deeply contested in the short term. How best to analyse international relations as a whole also remains a matter of debate.

On the basis of the argument advanced in this chapter, what is likely to happen and what should happen may be quite different. It would seem, on the available evidence, that a deeply interventionist global order driven by a rights ideology and culture may well emerge above the nation states, structured either by accountable or non-accountable international institutions of global governance. This outcome is all the more probable if international relations continue to be framed by a single superpower. However, if the development of a rights agenda and culture is unstoppable, then we do not have a choice not to use rights. Egalitarian rights institutionalising a right to intervene are becoming a common currency both inside particular countries and in international politics. Putting aside what is liable to happen, what should happen? We have suggested, in line with the communitarian position, that there is a strong normative argument for an international system that is less than a full-blown global society, in which nation states should remain crucial players.


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