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Does the Pursuit of Human Rights Strengthen or Weaken the Structure of International Society?

The concept of human rights can be traced as far as back as the theories of Natural Law which proposed the existence of universal moral standards, and Charter rights such as the Magna Carta.[1] However, they began to rise in importance after the horrors of the Second World War and then towards the end of the Cold War, which gave us many core human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).2] Solidarists would claim that this increasing pursuit of human rights strengthens the structure of international society because as the fundamental members of the international community, the rights of individuals should take priority over the rights of states, and that this should be the main purpose of the United Nations.

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[3] However, even if the rights of individuals should be prioritised, it is crucial to preserve Westphalian principles to maintain international order.

This essay will use a realist lens to argue that individuals are best served by protecting the rights of states, and therefore the integrity of the state should always be maintained. It will demonstrate how this prioritisation of national interests has meant that in fact the pursuit of human rights has neither strengthened nor weakened the structure of international society, but rather has been used as a tool by states to preserve the status quo and maintain their position as the most powerful actors in international relations.

It is possible to argue that to a certain extent the pursuit of human rights strengthens the structure of international society, if the structure of international society is taken to mean humans and the ways in which they interact. Solidarists would argue that individuals and not states are the ultimate members of international society and as such their rights should take precedence over norms of statehood like sovereignty and non-intervention. 4] Respecting human rights enables people to have personal security and freedom from violence, as well as freely pursue their social goals, thereby preserving order and strengthening international society. [5] Since the end of the Cold War many human rights treaties have been ratified and these are important because they provide non-state actors and individuals with something to which they can hold states accountable in the face of human rights abuses. 6] These treaties have also been important in creating a ‘human rights culture’, which is significant because it means that states are more pressured by their citizens to preserve and actively promote the preservation of human rights. [7] This was observed in the United States of America (USA) where domestic pressure led to the decision to intervene in Somalia. [8] This serves to strengthen international society because it empowers individuals to have a greater influence on international interactions.

Additionally, solidarists would claim that the pursuit of human rights illustrates an underlying universal morality. [9] The recognition of this universal morality would help to align the behaviour and interactions of humans across the world, hence strengthening international society itself. However, even if individuals are taken to be the ultimate members of international society, it is states that form the structure of it because they are the means by which international relations occur.

Hedley Bull argues that international society would be better served by upholding Westphalian principles because these help preserve order, as the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention prevent states from constantly invading each other and destabilising international society. [10] As individuals have chosen to politically organise themselves into states, the protection of the state should be paramount as the state is the arbiter of rights as well as the defence against foreign belligerence, enabling the preservation of freedom from violence and social security.

Therefore, Westphalian principles are crucial to the structure of international society because they ensure the integrity of the state and thus the protection of the individual. From this point of view it would seem that the pursuit of human rights actually weakens the structure of international society. In theory, important aspects of the human rights regime like humanitarian interventions and the International Criminal Court (ICC) threaten the integrity of states because they compromise Westphalian principles.

One of the reasons the USA does not support the ICC is that it could potentially have universal jurisdiction without needing state consent. [11] Human rights treaties impose upon states external standards of justice which assume a universalism to the morality of human rights which cannot be proven to exist, thus compromising their freedom of action. [12] However, although the principle of pursuing human rights weakens the structure of international society, in practise it actually does very little to affect the status quo.

States continue to be the most powerful actors in international relations and in general the human rights regime has done little to erode their Westphalian rights. States always act in accordance with their own national interests, and power politics are a strong motivating factor in interstate relations. [13] This leads to the widening of the ‘compliance gap’, where states only comply with human rights treaties when there is no reason for non-compliance; however when human rights clash with national security, the interests of the state are always prioritised. 14] States can even use human rights treaties as a shield against international pressure, because once a government ratifies a human rights treaty there is little else foreign actors can do, short of armed intervention. In essence, this allows states to ‘hide domestic human rights practises behind the veil of international law’. [15] Additionally, most of the core human rights treaties like the ICCPR were drafted and ratified during the Cold War. 16] Many states used ratification to gain political legitimacy but didn’t need to actually comply with them, such as the Helsinki Accords which the Soviet Union signed in order to gain political parity with the USA, but never intended to implement. [17]

This illustrates the main reason why the pursuit of human rights does not affect the structure of international society – that there are no solid mechanisms for the enforcement of international law and thus no method of combating impunity. 18] Although they can use economic and political pressure, the only real way that states can force an unwilling state into compliance is through humanitarian interventions. Humanitarian interventions have also done little in reality to change the structure of international society as states do not generally engage in them, and when they do they are condemned by the international community. [19] When states intervene for humanitarian causes they still justify the use of force in terms of self-defence, as seen with the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, and Tanzania in Uganda. 20] Even when humanitarianism is stated as the primary justification, as with the NATO intervention in Kosovo, national interests always influence the states’ actions. NATO believed if it did not act then any future threats of military force would appear redundant, therefore felt compelled to intervene in Kosovo. [21] This shows that the main motivation was not the plight of the Kosovar people, rather the protection of stability in Europe and the maintenance of NATO credibility.

The only case where an intervention would have truly been humanitarian was the crisis in Rwanda, where the lack of a threat to national security discouraged an intervention, leading the West to fall back on the Westphalian principles as an excuse not to expend resources. All of this demonstrates that the pursuit of human rights through humanitarian interventions has not affected the structure of international society because states use it to propagate their national interests and ignore it when it does not benefit them, thus preserving the status quo.

Therefore in conclusion, while solidarists could argue that the pursuit of human rights strengthens the structure of international society by empowering individuals to pursue a life free from violence, in reality the human rights regime has done little to affect the status quo of international relations. States remain the most powerful actors and do not allow human rights to interfere with their national interests, complying with treaties only when non-compliance is not necessary. 22] There has been no erosion of the sovereignty of states because internationally there are no mechanisms for law enforcement, and so states have freedom to act according to their national interests. [23] Even humanitarian interventions do not affect the current state of Westphalian rights because they are rare, and when they are carried out it is always because it is in the interests of the intervening state to do so.

Therefore the integrity of states is maintained because their sovereignty and right to non-intervention is preserved, allowing them to remain dominant in international relations and thus demonstrating that the pursuit of human rights does not weaken or strengthen the structure of international society, rather simply propagates the status quo.

How to cite Does the Pursuit of Human Rights Strengthen or Weaken the Structure of International Society?, Essays

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Does the Pursuit of Human Rights Strengthen or Weaken the Structure of International Society?. (2017, Apr 11). Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://phdessay.com/pursuit-human-rights-strengthen-weaken-structure-international-society/.