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

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2.2 The origins of a rights discourse

In some form, the ideas of ‘rights’ and ‘justice’ could probably be found in all societies and cultures. They are moral concepts because they are concerned with moral ideals; with how things should be rather than describing how things are. However, the notion of rights now has a prominence in political debate in a way it has not had in other times and places. In the political thought of the ancient world, for example, a key question was how individuals could best contribute to the sound running of the political community, with the accent on their obligations rather than their rights. In medieval Europe, a person's place in the social hierarchy was of key importance, and different sets of specific rights and responsibilities were assigned to each level on the scale.

Nevertheless, the medieval concept of natural law from which the modern, international human rights culture derives, specified that in principle all persons were subject to natural law and could understand its content and standards . The conception of rights which grew up in the modern period is concerned with equal rights. This is a very important point. By equal rights, I mean those that specify equality between persons, rights which say that no person should be treated as inferior, or excluded, marginalised, discriminated against, or made ‘other’ or abject. A society upholding equality of rights implies a sense of reciprocity in social relations and interaction, of ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’. Moreover, the modern notion of rights, based on claims to equality of rights and treatment, contain potentially emancipatory appeals to progressive political campaigning and action, which can imply the disruption of settled social relations within a community.

The modern rights movement has its origins in two separate sources – the tradition of ideas and political theory of the late eighteenth century, and the social reform movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Milestones of the first source include the development of the modern view of rights established with the popularity of the American Bill of Rights in 1791 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. Works like Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (first published in 1791) were also important in spreading Enlightenment notions of human rights and freedom from hierarchical forms of authority such as the church. Through such means – that is, the juridical codification of rights in state law – the nation state became the body authorised to enact and protect rights.

The move from constitutionally protected rights within a few states to the establishment of the modern notion of rights as articulated in the UN's Declaration was crucially significant. This move has increased the visibility and legitimacy of rights claims within any particular state. It has also had a powerful effect on international politics and law by setting standards or norms of conduct and treatment. In both ways, it has fostered the momentum for social change.

In addition to legal charters and political theory, the modern rights movement is also grounded in a second source – modern social movements. For instance, the anti-slavery campaigns of the nineteenth century argued that the customary pattern of human relationships was unacceptable on the basis of a religious argument about the divine origin of the human body. Subsequent campaigns for the equal rights of women, civil rights (anti-segregation, anti-apartheid) movements, and non-government organisations (NGOs) like Amnesty International have employed arguments about self-possession and self-ownership as well as an argument for communal relational responsibility and interdependence as part of freedom.

These groups have also used the liberal argument for the autonomy of the rational individual to pursue their rights claims. They have, in the words of an anti-colonial discourse, ‘used the master's tools to dismantle the master's house’. In this way, such campaigning groups use the language of the powerful to demand access to those same rights, and call the powerful to account for their easy statements of equal rights.