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

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6.2 Some general features of communitarianism and cosmopolitanism

There are two very different and sharply contrasting views about how the international arena can be theorised, should be organised and can be described. One side sees the international sphere as made up of a plurality of interacting cultures with incommensurable values, while the other side deploys general concepts of rights and applies these to humanity as a whole. These two constructions rest upon very different views of what human beings are, and how they do and should interact together.

Communitarians understand human beings firstly in terms of their cultural identity, while according to cosmopolitans reason should be, though perhaps is not always, the governing principle of human interaction. The cosmopolitan belief in the emancipatory power of the human capacity for reasoning derives from the idea that reasoning is a shared capacity capable of providing the basis for moral principles which aim to deliver humankind from the mire of ignorance and superstition. Cultural identity and the human capacity for reasoning are strongly divergent principles on which to base the construction of international politics.

For communitarianism, the international arena is dominated by states but this does not discount the role played by other, subordinate actors to help coordinate interstate activity. International NGOs, international regulatory organisations like the World Bank and IMF, the UN as a forum for states, and global civil society campaigns such as the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa or anti-globalisation protests can all play a role, provided that states are still regarded as central. However, public debate on the role and basis of legitimacy and accountability of organisations such as the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), and International Labour Organization (ILO) remains to be conducted.

As stated by cosmopolitans, the international arena is a public sphere and potentially an arena of governance in its own right. Some cosmopolitans look forward to a global order with a stronger set of institutions above states. Areas identified as requiring faster reform include the composition of the UN Security Council and the power of veto by its permanent members, and the restrictions on international intervention arising from the UN Charter and from state sovereignty. The form of accountability that supranational institutions would have, how that accountability would be delivered, and to whom, remain in question.

Communitarians distrust claims made for proposals of cosmopolitan democracy, advanced for instance by David Held (1995), on the grounds that it can be questioned whether the proposed frameworks to extend democracy at the international level will bring about the empowerment of the ‘global citizen’. There are fears that the mechanisms of regulation envisaged by cosmopolitans, based on ideas such as international civil society, cosmopolitan governance and cosmopolitan citizenship, do not involve sufficient means of political accountability, and instead provide more opportunities for freedom of action by leading world powers.

Communitarians argue that rights and justice are culturally specific and cannot be applied across borders. They consider that what we have in the world, and what should be valued in a positive sense, are different, plural, political communities with divergent and incompatible interests. They hold that the diversity and heterogeneity among a plurality of communities and their values is as important to sustain as is a diversity of species among animals and plants. Communitarians contend that while moral principles should have a place in the conduct of interstate relations, there are no overarching principles sufficiently widely endorsed to form the basis for a strong legal authority that would limit the claims of the sovereign state. The UN and other international organisations are valid if they help to co-ordinate communication and action within the complex society of states, but such organisations should not seek to supplant the sovereign state as the highest law-making body for its domestic population. The key principles to uphold are those of the self-determination of peoples, and the legitimate rights of a state to manage its own affairs and to defend itself from interference. States should respect one another's independence.

Communitarians claim that the separate communities (most often nation states) remain the basic building blocks of international relations, and that reasonable states have political institutions, governments, electoral systems, the rule of law, and constitutions, all of which should together be the focus of political activity for citizens. Although some issues, such as global environmental problems and morally-motivated aid to developing peoples need to be regulated globally, this is best achieved through interstate coordination. We should value an international society of sovereign states whose interaction is based on the principle of non-interference.

As maintained by the communitarian position, human rights cannot be defined universally because they only have meaning in terms of the social fabric of the particular societies and cultures that proclaim them. ‘Human rights’, it is argued, mean something different in Somalia from what they mean in the context of, say, Japan. ‘Human rights’ is a term that only has meaning when anchored in particular political allegiances and an explicit historical development. Communitarians hold that rights are grounded in specific cultural understandings and have no universal fundamental basis, and that they should instead be recognised as radically socially constructed. They question the usefulness of universal definitions of rights and justice, arguing that such definitions are so abstract that it is difficult to apply them and to match them to any specific situation. They are so universal that they do not take account of different social and cultural contexts and histories. These definitions also narrow the range of acceptable action. As Brown notes, the ‘very idea of human rights implies limits to the range of variation in domestic regimes that is acceptable internationally’ (Brown, 2001, p. 610).

The communitarian critique of the international human rights culture extolled by cosmopolitans also argues that, in this reading, rights are so fixed that they do not allow any challenge. In order to be useful in the real world of politics, definitions of rights and justice, like other political concepts, need to be interpreted. The concept of rights is clear but thin, and too far removed from real life. What we need, according to communitarians, is different, thick interpretations of the concept, that is, diverse conceptions. Yet as soon as we start talking about different conceptions of rights and justice, we begin to realise how complex and contested those conceptions are. Do they then lose their universality? The price of having conceptions that fit real situations is that there are no agreed fixed meanings to refer to in order to referee disputes. There is no neutral language with which to discuss international human rights, and all perspectives carry an ideological charge. There is no objective ‘God's-eye’ view from which to arbitrate.

Moreover, some communitarians also believe that ‘rights’ talk individualises and fragments social bonds. It is necessary, in contrast, to think about values for society as a whole. In addition, the communitarian perspective might argue that ‘relationality’ (the idea that our relations with others are as important to our well-being and individual identity as our sense of individual freedom and rights) is profoundly important to us. A standpoint which does not recognise that our needs are usually interdependent with those of others, and so does not take relationality into account, can lead to damaging consequences for all concerned.

The communitarian position is strengthened by the argument that many human rights conflict with each other, for instance, potentially between a mother and her unborn child. Its appeal is also fortified by pointing out that because the meaning of rights is contextual, many interpretations will conflict, and there is no obvious principle to appeal to for resolving disputes of interpretation. This view holds that the answer to the dilemma lies in the need to compromise absolutely-held political positions and convictions. Compromise and consensus can only be achieved politically, on a case-by-case basis. This quandary occurs at the international level as well as at the domestic level, and can only be settled by a process of negotiation between the particular set of actors involved, not by reference to some overarching ‘global institution’ or principle.

Activity 2

Rather than seeking a single set of human rights upheld by all states, communitarians argue that we should value a diversity of ‘reasonable’ ways of living together and, therefore, different conceptions of the political good in international society. What, if any, are the limits to what is ‘reasonable’? On what grounds should we accord respect to other cultures?


This one is difficult. You might find it helpful to work through the following argument of David Beetham.

[I]t is difficult to see why we should accord equal respect to other cultures except on the basis of the equal human dignity that is due to the individuals who are members of those cultures. And if we accord them equal dignity, is it not as those capable of self-determination and as having a legitimate claim to an equal voice in their own collective affairs? To be sure, we have long since progressed from the simplistic Enlightenment assumption that equality denoted sameness. Indeed, the capacity for self-determination is precisely a capacity to be different, both individually and collectively, and a claim to have these differences respected by others. But that capacity also sets limits to the cultural practices that can be endorsed by the principle of equal respect … Without a strong principle of equal respect for persons, there can be no reason except power considerations why we should not treat cultural difference as a basis for exclusion, discrimination or subordination; with it, we are bound to take a critical attitude to those cultural practices that infringe it, and not merely because we find them different and alien from our own.

(Beetham, 1999, p. 15)

Table 2 summarises the difference between the communitarian and cosmopolitan perspectives.

Table 2: The communitarian/cosmopolitan distinction
Principle of human interactionCultural identityReason
Basis of interactionPlurality of intersecting cultures with incommensurable valuesSingle humanity with everyone having equal moral worth because all human beings share capacity for reason
View of international systemSystem dominated by sovereign nation states that co-operate and conflict with one anotherSuprastate public sphere and an arena of governance in its own right
Preferred form of international authoritySovereign state and interstate institutions, no strong legal and political authority above the stateCommunity of states upholding universal human rights and international law
Basis for addressing common problemsCommon problems are best addressed through co-ordination between statesCommon problems governed by principle of universal rights and the related principle of universal international justice
Concept of rightsOnly have meaning in terms of the social fabric of the particular societies and cultures that proclaim them, they do not have universal meaningRights can have universal meaning when they are based upon human reason
Values versus rightsValues for a society as a whole prevail over rights talk because the latter individualises and fragments social bondsUniversal rights prevail over particular values because they express universal reason
Concept of international justiceJustice can at most be international, that is express cooperation between states and justice between statesUniversal justice valid for every individual, justice as expression of universal human reason for humanity as a whole

In the remainder of this section, we consider how the differences between the cosmopolitan and communitarian views on how to describe and organise international interaction lead to divergent political positions on three key debates on international justice – distributive and retributive forms of justice, and interventionism.