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

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5.7 Relating individual rights to state sovereignty

The fourth set of problems is really a specific example of the third set and relates to the ways in which individual rights relate to state sovereignty. The Millennium Conference of the UN in 2000 endorsed the need for people-centred changes to the institution and renounced its previous ‘state-centred’ structure. The human-centred logic of rights regards human rights as a value which places legitimate constraints upon the politics of national self-interest and interstate competition. Chandler notes that at the 1993 ‘UN World Conference on Human Rights’ in Vienna, ‘the UN Charter was widely construed to mean that human rights should take precedence over sovereignty’. Moreover, he argues that, ‘by the end of the 1990s, with UN protectorates established in Kosovo and East Timor and the indictment of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes, international relations were no longer seen to be dominated by the need for inter-state consensus’ (Chandler, 2002, p. 8).

Do human rights provide a universal principle on which to justify intervention that ‘trumps’ state sovereignty? There is no current consensus about what constitutes sound arguments to justify forms of legitimate intervention. Besides, the line between humanitarian and military intervention can be a very blurred one. The current human-centred approach to rights can also lead to unwanted consequences. Understanding human rights conflicts on the model of victim and abuser can lead to a moralised discourse where the underlying grounds of the conflict are neglected, the victim is regarded as incapable of remedy without international assistance, and the abuser is considered as incapable of adopting right over wrong.

There is some proof that this model, applied to the Rwandan genocide for instance, has neglected the wider political and social framework in which mass killing took place. There is also evidence that in media coverage of Bosnia and Rwanda, ‘public understanding of these conflicts has been distorted by advocacy journalists calling for military intervention against demonised human rights abusers’. Analysis of the Kosovo crisis also suggests that ‘human rights intervention can easily become a dehumanising project of bombing and sanctions in the cause of great power interests’ (Chandler, 2002, p. 15).