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

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5.3 Problems with international rights

The international human rights discourse claims that the value of its conception of rights lies in it being universal, empowering and human-centred. The idea of universality asserts the relevance of human rights to anyone, anywhere. Empowerment is the concept of human rights as a defence against inequality and the domination of the powerful over the weak. The human-centred feature of international rights seeks to provide a perspective on global questions, ‘putting the value of human dignity above the search for economic gain or the narrow interests of particular national governments’ (Chandler, 2002, p. 1).

We would like here to identify four specific sets of problems and a wider concern for this discourse:

  1. The rights discourse is not universal but is deeply informed by a Western perspective (see Section 5.4)

  2. Feminist critiques dispute the universalism of rights and argue that they have a masculine bias (see Section 5.5).

  3. The question of who can claim what rights against whom is another area of difficulty (see Section 5.6).

  4. The fourth problem is a specific instance of the third, relating to the way that individual rights may trump state sovereignty, and it challenges the human-centred feature of the international rights discourse (see Section 5.7).

As you will note, some of the criticisms that are developed below are objections to rights in principle; others are objections that rights are not realised, or are hard to realise, in practice.