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

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5.8 Review of criticisms of international rights

Activity 1

Review the four criticisms of rights at the international level discussed in the previous sections.

  1. Identify which of these criticisms are objections in principle to the discourse of universal human rights and which are objections in practice.

  2. Identify which of these criticisms relate particularly to implementing rights internationally and which might apply to rights more generally.


  1. There is in fact sometimes no clear dividing line between principle and practice; that is, the line between the two criticisms is often blurred. Nevertheless, objections in principle might include the argument that universal rights are Western in origin and therefore cannot be universal. However, the related criticism that Western countries criticise others' human rights records and not their own is not an objection to rights in principle, just to the uses of rights discourse by Western states. Similarly, the criticism of DFID is about the non-fulfilment of rights in practice not principle.

    Similar distinctions can be made about the feminist critiques. The objection that women's rights are particularly hard to enforce is one of practice – a product of patriarchy. The argument that specifying universal rights obscures the different problems that women face is more of a principled objection to universal rights claims. The objection that rights at the international level create the problem of against whom rights should be claimed is a principled objection, although it leads to the practical problem that rights are not in fact realised for many people.

  2. Criticisms that pertain particularly to the international level are the Western origin of rights, and the problem of against whom rights claims should be made. Feminist criticisms could apply to rights viewed entirely in the domestic sphere.

These criticisms sharpen the idea that there is a gap between principle and practice. The human-centred approach refers to the view that moral and ethical considerations should be central, rather than policies being mediated either by profit or by the grand ideological designs of left-wing and right-wing politics. Nonetheless, the disjunction between the pure, principled character of rights and the real world of conflicting interests, compromise and power politics throws this feature into question. In part, this is due to the problem that abstract human rights (as propounded in the UN definition) are only or ‘merely’ rhetorical unless they are backed up by the capacity to implement and operationalise them, and unless they are recognised by the country in which one lives. Rights may belong only to ‘discourse’ and not be ‘real’. In support of this view, some critics maintain that the evidence shows that rights have not, in practice, impinged much upon states' national interests or the interests of international financial and trade organisations, let alone on national and international violence and intervention.