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

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6.3 International distributive justice

While communitarians strongly support an interpretation of the UN postwar settlement based on the principle of national self-determination, many cosmopolitans seek to go beyond that settlement. Those who endorse cosmopolitanism look forward to a further development and structuring of global relations, governed by the principle of universal rights, in which the exercise of national sovereignty is conditional on respect for human rights. Some, but not all, cosmopolitans wish to institutionalise this development in an international framework that would over-ride the authority of nation states. Cosmopolitans argue that international relations need to reach beyond power politics and each state acting in its own interests, and instead institutionalise the principles of rights and justice as the basis of order between states. They argue that distributive justice is not just at issue within a state or even between states, but also at a global level among individuals. The contention is that international inequalities are not only the unplanned outcome of competition and differently positioned access to resources, but they raise a broader moral issue about the unacceptability of large differences in welfare, resources, income, and life chances within an ‘international community’.

Consequently, a key tenet of the cosmopolitan position is that global relations should be governed by the principle of rights which informs the principle of international distributive justice. For instance, only at this level can redress for inequalities between the North and the South, from the affluent to the impoverished, be sought. Furthermore, cosmopolitans mostly hold that the transferred resources should be distributed to individuals rather than to states. Some cosmopolitans argue that resources should be targeted at those who are least well-off, while others believe that all persons are entitled to an equal share of the earth's resources.

Communitarians focus on the argument that the claims of one's own fellow citizens for a redistribution of resources must take priority over the claims of those residing in other countries. Radical cosmopolitans assert that people and states have just as strong an obligation to distributive justice anywhere in the world as they do to their co-nationals or fellow citizens, or within their state boundaries. Whereas communitarians subscribe to a notion of needs-based distributive justice, cosmopolitans are committed to rights-based justice. The logic of the argument for cosmopolitans is that if one agrees that ‘(a) individuals have moral worth’ and ‘(b) they have this equally’, it follows that ‘(c) people's equal moral worth generates moral reasons that are binding on everyone’ (Caney, 2001, p. 977). The argument is that ‘a person's nationality or citizenship should not determine their entitlements’ (Caney, 2001, p. 979). If it is agreed that all persons have equal moral worth, how can the country you happen to live in compromise this universal principle?

Indeed, many cosmopolitans argue for strong and interventionist versions of international distributive justice aimed at measures associated with subsistence, economic and welfare rights. Such measures include international development efforts, humanitarian aid, debt relief, immigration policy and regulating the environment. Thomas Pogge (2002), for example, considers that the need for cosmopolitan international justice follows as a consequence of the development of economic globalisation. For cosmopolitans, international distributive justice can and should be premised on universal principles and not simply conducted at the level of relations between nation states.