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

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5.4 The influence of the Western perspective

With regard to the first set of problems – that the rights discourse is not universal but is deeply informed by a Western perspective – it is striking that many actors and commentators on the international stage now frame their arguments and assertions in terms of the language of rights and justice. Yet we need to ask to what extent this language of rights and justice really underpins shared understandings and values. There is a strong case for saying that if there are shared understandings of rights and justice, they are a result of the power of the West by force or example, rather than common responses to similar sets of circumstances.

The cultural specificity of the current rights agenda cannot easily be overcome, because it derives directly from an Enlightenment and modern, rational, Western tradition and its accompanying context of emancipatory, progressive, liberationist politics. Rights in this sense cannot simply be applied to other places and times. This partially refers to the distinctively Eurocentric and liberal elements in the construction of ‘rights’ and ‘justice’. These elements include the particular liberal idea of tolerance and impartiality between different standpoints and between different normative evaluations in international relations, resulting in a healthy pluralism.

A further element concerns the characteristically abstract, universal, foundational and individualised notions of autonomy, equality and freedom found in the Western liberal tradition of rights and justice. A distinctively Western-inspired element informing the discourse is the ideal of social democratic egalitarianism. The critique of the Western currency for the dominant meaning of, and agenda for, rights and justice notes the specificity of the Western rights discourse. That discourse is linked not only to liberal principles but also coincides with a democratic political agenda, and the growth of a democratic culture of egalitarian citizenship.

Reading international rights through the lens of Western concepts can lead to distorting effects. For instance, some critics have argued that there is an unwarranted tendency in both Europe and North America to see human rights as problems for other countries but not for themselves, and to be complacent about poverty and institutionalised racism in Western countries. Critiques of rights notions in the West are often disregarded yet deserve to be taken seriously. The criticisms from some Muslim groups, for instance, of the objectification of women's bodies and the power of the pornography industry in the West, are well-placed.

Another example is that the conditions often tied to humanitarian aid for developing countries have the effect of politicising aid from Western governments and increasing their control, instead of simply universalising the right to aid. This analysis also extends to questioning the limits of the Western emancipatory agenda in the light of the power of market capitalist multinational corporations. This view believes that the Western rights agenda simply masks another form of hegemonic power, domination and subjection.

Critics of the Eurocentric and liberal nature of the dominant meaning of rights point to other definitions of rights and justice in non-Western countries and to non-Western conceptions of human rights. Such alternative definitions of rights draw upon religious or community identities rather than those of citizens within the territorial nation state. For instance, human rights in some Muslim societies contain the idea of separate and equal spheres for men and women rather than universal egalitarian rights. Traditionalist conceptions of human rights exist in China and different African societies, and in cultural values informing the caste system in India. ‘Asian values’ is a prominent alternative form of human rights conception which is less individualistic than the Western-derived notion, and places greater value on religion, family and elders.

Since the end of the Cold War divisions between the West and the Soviet bloc, the human rights discourse and agenda have become even stronger guides to policy making. The dominant human rights discourse can appear universal since the decline of Cold War barriers to international regulation. The move to a world dominated by a single superpower has given the illusion that a particular definition of human rights as a policy instrument is universal. Nonetheless, a strong case can be made that the meaning of international human rights should be derived from theoretical analysis and debate and not, by default, from geo-political shifts in international relations alignments.

Problems with the universalisation of a Western rights agenda are closely linked to problems with the idea of international rights as empowering. The assumption that the human rights culture will empower those who have been marginalised or excluded from the political process can be questioned. To illustrate, consider the UK Department for International Development (DFID) view that the ‘human rights approach to development means empowering people to take their own decisions, rather than being the passive objects of choices made on their behalf' (2000, p. 7). In practice, instead of granting new rights, it is sometimes the case that good intentions are not fulfilled. Chandler notes that the ‘rights of advocacy claimed by international bodies provide little accountability for those they claim to act on behalf of, while potentially undermining existing rights of democracy and self-government’ (Chandler, 2002, pp. 14–15). There is evidence that the human rights framework can have the effect of empowering international institutions rather than those they claim to represent.

There is also a strong argument that the meaning of international human rights is not widely shared but has been driven by particular contingent crisis situations. Debate has tended to centre on specific ad hoc cases and not on the broader consequences of the prioritisation of a human rights agenda.

Debate has also focused narrowly on how to make institutions effective in implementing their new role, rather than on the broader implications of the shift they are bringing about in international organisations and policy making. Likewise, there has been very little discussion of the theoretical basis of the central justification for this understanding of human rights. As Chandler observes, for ‘many commentators, the human rights framework appears to be justified as a fait accompli because governments and international institutions have already accepted it’ (Chandler, 2002, p. 12). The international human rights culture is so well established that it has deterred the kind of sustained theoretical debate that developed in previous centuries over rights which were understood within a nation state context.