Human Rights Role in International Relations | Free Essay Example

Human Rights Role in International Relations

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Introduction

Today, more than ever before, human rights have become resolutely embedded in both the practice and study of international relations (IR), in large part due to the mounting growth of the United Nations (UN) international human rights regime coupled with the rise of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and human rights activists.1 Scholars of IR have increasingly recognised the necessity to study in more detail the working logic of human rights in international organisations as well as in the foreign policy spectrum, particularly after the realisation that the international dimension of human rights sits at the core of international politics, international law, trade, and foreign aid.2

Yet, despite the marked interest of human rights in the IR literature, it is evident that the dominant theories of IR (e.g., realism, liberalism, and constructivism) explain the role of such rights in substantially diverse ways, with many of the claims carrying convincing arguments that seem to reinforce a troubling juxtaposition of state sovereignty with notions of a universal moral order.3 With the conviction that human rights are presently a permanent feature of international relations, the present report sets out to critically discuss the role of these rights in IR.

The emergence of Human Rights in International Relations

Available literature demonstrates that, although the concept of human rights was already in the public domain in the eighteenth century, it acquired its own place in international relations in 1945 when it was incorporated in the United Nations (UN) Charter and the Universal declaration as a reaction to the disgraceful crimes against humanity undertaken by the German national socialists against the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and political opponents of the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.4 The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is perceived by many academics as the founding document that, according to Eleanor Roosevelt, assisted in the setting up of a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.

After the initial euphoria presented by the UDHR, human rights advocates had to wait until the 1970s before the principles contained in the document began to substantially influence and constrain the behaviour of states on the global map, with scholars suggesting that the lull period was to a large extent influenced by two main factors, namely (1) the priority accorded to national security by the leading protagonists and their allies during the Cold War, and (2) the fact that most states did not permit multilateral monitoring of their human rights practices.5

These factors demonstrate that, from the onset, human rights were eclipsed by systematic factors involving enormous power competition between states and the predilection by some actors of international society to perceive human rights as mere standards that cannot be possibly seen as enforceable commitments. It is hence reported in mainstream IR literature that, with the exclusion of a small number of countries who were signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights, the overall perception from 1945 to early 1970s was one in which there was a deep-seated gap between standards and delivery, effectively limiting human rights from achieving widespread international recognition.6

However, in the mid-1970s, a multiplicity of factors (e.g., the growing legalisation of human rights values and development of legal norms and the proliferation of human rights INGOs such as Amnesty International) converged to elevate human rights into the international limelight.7 In the development of legal norms, two international human rights covenants came into force in 1976, not mentioning that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights became more active not only due to its expanded membership but also because of the inclusion of states committed to demonstrating a difference.8

The 1970s saw the growth and expansion of INGOs committed to entrenching state compliance with human rights law, with the most significant ones being Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Lastly, in the insertion of human rights into diplomacy, the U.S. Congress passed legislation linking aid and trade to human rights, not mentioning that Norway and the Netherlands were becoming more activist-oriented in promoting human rights in their own foreign policies. Respect for human rights was made a pre-condition for membership to the European Community (EC) and later the European Union (EU), while people in many European countries could also lodge human rights complaints against their respective countries through the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), thus demonstrating a much higher level of institutionalisation of human rights in IR.9

Drawing from the above exposition, it is evident that human rights moved from the periphery to the centre of IR in the 1970s.10 By the mid-to-late 1990s, the international human rights norm had diffused widely in IR, with some of the key drivers being the fall of communism, the rapid transitioning of countries in Latin America and Asia to liberal democracies, as well as the mounting acquiescence of non-liberal states into the human rights regime through various conventions, such as the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights.11 These dynamics created new hopes that human rights would achieve ever greater significance in IR, particularly with regard to promoting democracy and good governance, preventing abuses, legitimising international actors, ensuring international economic justice and business ethics, as well as reinforcing regional and international integration. These roles are discussed more deeply in the subsequent section.

The Role of Human Rights in International Relations

Promotion of Democracy & Good Governance

Available literature demonstrates that, in recent years, human rights thinking has undeniably changed from philosophical allegations to those of everyday life and active politics, such as the promotion of democracy and good governance at a global level.12 There is no doubt that promotion of good governance and democratic ideals are critical components in guaranteeing respect for human rights, as the promise of human rights reinforced by international treaties and institutions may never be fulfilled in the absence of the rule of law, independent judicial systems, and other institutions prevalent in contemporary society.13

But while it is increasingly clear that transparent, accountable, and participatory governance structures are a precondition to the nurturing of democratic ideals, respect for human dignity and defence of human rights, it is also dawning on IR scholars that the human rights regime can be successfully used to promote democracy and good governance by emphasising the importance of norms and values in how states define their status and identities.14 In line with the liberal and social constructivist theories, the point has now been reached where international law and the international community have developed a broad range of human rights standards which directly or indirectly influence states to promote democratic ideals and good governance structures or risk being perceived as encouraging repressive practices.15

It is argued in the literature that “states that fail to abide by prevalent international norms risk losing the support of their citizenry since citizens in modern states are likely to evaluate the performance of their government relative to the performance of other governments.”16

Consequently, it is expected that states will increasingly engage in the promotion of democracy and good governance in line with the existing peer pressure concerning the adoption of global human rights norms and values that have been ratified through international treaties or encouraged by international actors such as INGOs.17 States that fail to promote democracy and good governance as demanded by the human rights regime and ratified in treaties often face resistance from their own citizens, who are less likely to comply with their respective government’s directives, hence effectively weakening the government’s position in power when compared with others that have complied with the norms of democracy and good governance.18

The above exploration demonstrates a mounting acceptance among the international community about the centrality of the human rights regime and its significance in entrenching democratic ideals and securing good governance, implying that human rights protection is indispensable to deepening substantive democracy and guaranteeing good governance structures.19

It is agreeable that the human rights framework provides an effective means for governments to transition from basic electoral democracy to the fully-fledged version by ensuring that power ultimately rests with the people, recognising and protecting the people’s right to have a say in all decision-making processes, guaranteeing crucial freedoms such as the freedom to express one’s thoughts and opinion without fear, as well as accommodating the views of the minority.20 It cannot escape mention that democratic ideals (e.g., freedom, equality, fraternity, accommodation of diversity, assurance of justice) and the pillars of good governance (e.g., transparency, equal participation, responsibility, accountability, responsiveness) underline the norms and values of human rights as well, hence the centrality of human rights not only in upholding the edifice of sustainable democracy, but also facilitating an enabling environment for the implementation of good governance structures.21

Prevention of Abuses

This role is better understood when evaluated under the liberal theoretical lens. Available literature demonstrates that, while there are several strands of liberal thinking, the central notion “is that individual persons have basic rights to free speech, fair treatment in terms of the judicial process, and political equity enshrined in a political constitution.”22

As a matter of fact, liberals perceive human rights as having an increasingly elaborate role in IR, particularly in (1) ensuring that states enshrine the rights of citizens in legal constitutions, (2) terminating the trade in slaves and dissolving the institution of slavery, (3) agreeing to protect the condition of workers, and (4) advancing humanitarian law not only to protect wounded or captured combatants but also to criminalise the targeting of civilians.23

In the prevention of abuses, it is important to note that human rights have increasingly being used by liberal democracies with the view to emancipate or liberate individual human beings “from those oppressions that stop them carrying out what they would freely choose to do, compatible with the freedoms of others.”24 As suggested by R. Blakeley, oppression in the international arena often takes the form of violence and terrorism, but can also involve foreign policies that hinder the provision of basic material needs, such as George W. Bush’s unpopular policy of waterboarding in the War on Terror.25

In the emancipation debate, human rights are used by international actors, agencies, and other stakeholders to identify possibilities for change within the prevailing order, hence expanding the dialogue contexts and consequently preventing the imposition of freedom by a state to the individual victim of oppression through a particular politics or ideology.26 In cases where state terrorism and torture have been used (e.g., when the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan), effective deployment of human rights through the process of emancipation has been widely used by international players concerned with identifying practices that might bring about change, systematic structures that might be transformed, and appropriate actors that are in the best position to facilitate such change.27

It is important to note that emancipation distances itself from the realism theoretical thought, which views human rights as important if and only if they facilitate the relative power of an individual state or group of states.28 On the contrary, emancipation aligns itself with liberalism, hence its focus on freeing individuals from human rights abuses and other acts of oppression.29

The United Nations (UN) firmly believes that the human rights regime can be used by actors within the international arena not only to prevent massive human rights violations and abuses as happened during the Rwanda and Darfur genocides but also to enhance the attainment of stable and harmonious relations among global communities, as well as foster mutual understanding, tolerance and peace.

In the achievement of these outcomes, the UN has developed and expanded the Human Rights Education (HRE) initiative, with the view to (1) strengthening the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, (2) ensuring the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, (3) facilitating the promotion of understanding, tolerance, gender equality and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and racial, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, (4) availing a framework through which all people could participate effectively in a free society, and (5) furthering the activities of the UN for the maintenance of peace and prevention of abuses.30 Drawing from this exposition, it is evident that the UN is well aware of the fact that strengthening respect for human rights and facilitating peaceful coexistence among communities through such programmes as the HRE are critical components in the prevention of abuses and human rights violations.

Legitimising International Actors

Available literature demonstrates that human rights continue to play an important role in legitimising international institutions, which in turn are seen as important determinants of state behaviour.31 Indeed, human rights are considered by some scholars of IR as important in legitimising international institutions (INGOs) such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, owing to the fact that “human rights have increasingly moved to the realm of legal rights – that is, those rights that exist under the rules of legal systems and customs.”32

Upon legitimatisation, these INGOs perform several important functions, including (1) acting as information networks with a capability to communicate evidence of human rights violations to their membership and the global media, (2) monitoring governments’ records in complying with the treaties they have signed and reminding them of their international obligations, and (3) providing the resources necessary to increase domestic mobilisation and advocacy.33

Available scholarship demonstrates that INGOs have increasingly played an important role in restraining other states from human rights violations and stimulating respect for human rights by exposing non-compliance in such countries throughout the world and embarrassing those public bodies whose word is not as good as their bond.34 To succeed in this role, these INGOs work within the confines of international human rights law to collect information on human rights abuses before strategically using the facts to pressure a state regarding its repressive practices.35

Bell and colleagues opine that, “by providing negative information to third parties outside the state, [INGOs] hope to name and shame or shame and blame a regime into making improvements in their human rights practices.”36 Other roles of the INGOs made possible by their own legitimisation in the international arena through a human rights based approach include (1) organising and coordinating marches against repressive regimes, as was the case in South Africa during the apartheid era, (2) providing draft legislation relating to human rights protection to governmental leaders and working to educate local masses concerning the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as was the case in Nigeria, and (3) providing the much needed legal and psychological assistance to abuse victims, as was the case in Bosnia immediately after the genocide.37

The role of human rights in legitimising international actors has been criticised in the literature. For example, it is argued that most INGOs do not necessarily represent the rights of local individuals not only due to their overdependence on other international actors such as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation for funding, but also because of their incapacity to effect widespread mobilisation of people to their cause.38

Furthermore, it is widely held that the nature of the human rights regime in legitimising international actors is inherently paradoxical as it queries the moral omnipotence of the state39, yet it is firmly embedded in public international law which has the principles of state sovereignty and independence at its innermost crux.40 Other scholars employ the realist theoretical approach to demonstrate the weakness of human rights in legitimising international actors by arguing that some states may choose to downplay or underplay the normative power, norms and values espoused by INGOs, implying that compliance and enforcement of international human rights regimes as advocated by these actors will be primarily a function of domestic concerns and not of international incentives or pressure.41

Ensuring International Economic Justice and Business Ethics

As indicated by Giovanni Mantilla, “interest-based approaches to the emergence of international regimes suggest that actors will behave rationally, with a set of ordered preferences, and will calculate the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action in order to maximise their utility in view of those preferences.”42 International actors, according to this scholar, may also project a self-centred behavioural orientation by demonstrating more concern about their own selfish achievements than the comparative achievements of others.43

In this light, IR scholars argue that the human rights role of ensuring economic justice and business ethics came into the limelight during the 1990s, when INGOs increased the publications of economic injustices and negative impacts associated with multinational corporations (e.g., Global Witness on Shell’s dealings in Nigeria; Amnesty International on British Petroleum and Occidental Petroleum in Columbia).44 As noted by Mantilla, corporations were now being scrutinised not only for engaging in economic injustices, disproportionate labour practices and adverse environmental operations, but also for behaviours perceived as potentially contributing to global conflict and vilifying “human rights by aligning with authoritarian governments and funding repressive military forces; hiring abusive private security; and paying bribes to illegal armed groups for security.”45

Today, with the rising importance of multinational corporations in the global socioeconomic and political landscape, mounting attention is been afforded to assessing how these corporations adopt and implement socially responsible policies in line with the modern human rights architecture.46 The Global Compact initiative, launched in 2000 by the UN, is a clear testament of how the human rights approach has been used to ensure economic justice and business ethics for multinationals operating in the international arena. This initiative is “a voluntary platform joining companies and civil society around ten principles on human rights, transparency, labour, and environmental issues.”47 Among other things, the Global Compact initiative advises multinational corporations to:

Support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; to ensure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses; to uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; to eliminate all forms of forced and compulsory labour, including child labour; to take a precautionary approach to environmental challenges; and to work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery.48

The human rights regime uses voluntary codes and normative pressure to ensure compliance with these principles49, though available IR scholarship demonstrates that corporations are subject not necessarily to international law, but rather to the domestic laws of countries where they are incorporated and operate.50 In line with the social constructivist approach to the study of IR, “it has been argued that when a sufficient number of states have adopted an international norm a kind of peer pressure emerges that can coerce other states into adopting the norm, resulting in a norm cascade.”51

Using the constructivist school of thought, therefore, it is evident how the human rights regime has played an increasing role in pressuring multinational corporations to comply with the codes, principles, and norms that have been developed over the years to ensure the facilitation of economic justice and business ethics at an international level.52

The legitimacy and universality of the norms are intimately connected to the norm cascade process, hence corporations are compelled by the norms ensuring economic justice and business ethics (e.g. right to productive employment, right to organise and bargain collectively; right to participate in economic decisions, equitable distribution of goods according to norms of justice) to show that they are not deviants so that they can be accorded the recognition and privileges that their peers receive.53 Failure to abide by the norms by ensuring a level playing ground in the strict economic and business ethics sense can result in condemnation from INGOs that may be troublesome enough to change the practices of deviant companies in some instances.54

Reinforcing Regional & International Integration

At first glance it seems that the promotion and protection of human rights can never be within the regional and international integration’s focal range; however, human-rights-related matters play a fundamental role within the integration’s legal framework as well as in the states’ daily practices owing to the fact that many countries within these regional and international integration blocks (e.g., EU, AU, OECD, ASEAN) have implemented certain provisions in their mandate that have an impact on human rights, democratic ideals, and good governance.55 Many regional and international blocks have incorporated human rights into their treaties, as a common acknowledgment to recognising and protecting human rights can easily be found in the fundamental legal provisions underpinning the establishments of these economic and political blocks.56

The main reasons for integrating human rights into the structure of regional and international blocks include (1) the commitment by states to respect human rights by assenting to particular human rights treaties, conventions or declarations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, (2) the realisation that human rights and good governance play an important role in economic development and investment climate, which in turn contributes to growth, productivity, and the creation of jobs, (3) the realisation that a peaceful environment which recognises and enhances human rights is an important prerequisite for economic development, and (4) the realisation that economic development is obliged to respect human rights in a democratic society, conversely implying that human rights can be given more effect through economic growth.57

Drawing from this exposition, it is evident that the human rights regime plays a fundamental role in the development of regional and international integration; however, states must develop ways to deal with obstacles to regional and international integration, namely fear of losing autonomy and identity, socioeconomic disparities among members, historical injustices and disagreements, lack of vision, as well as unwillingness to share resources.58

It should be remembered that the role of human rights in reinforcing regional and international integration is, at best, two-way in that most of these economic and political blocks are also mandated by various legal provisions, entrenched values and norms to promote human rights.59 It has already been mentioned that regional and international economic bodies such as the EU and the ASEAN have already incorporated the respect for and/or enhancement of human rights into their constitutive instruments, hence operationalising their capacity to translate human rights principles and ideals into practice.60

Consequently, it is safe to argue that the human rights regime has so far been used to reinforce regional and international integration by rallying global economic, political and cultural blocks/communities around similar legislations and commitments as indicated above; however, it is also evident that these communities have a clear mandate to promote and protect human rights despite obstacles of concurrent jurisdiction and overlapping memberships.61 The enforcement mechanisms used by these economic and political communities are critical in not only ensuring that the human rights regime plays its rightful role in reinforcing regional and international integration, but also in facilitating the blocks/communities to promote and protect human rights.

Conclusion

It is evident from this discussion and analysis that the human rights regime has an important role to play in international relations, particularly with regard to promoting democracy and good governance, prevention of abuses, legitimising international actors, ensuring international economic justice and business ethics, as well as reinforcing regional and international integration. This paper has relied on the realist, liberalist, and the social constructivist theories of international relations not only to demonstrate the expanded roles of human rights and human rights law in the international arena, but also to provide an understanding of how the various norms, values, treaties and practices making up the human rights regime influence states into compliance. Some criticisms of the roles have also been provided and evaluated within the dominant theoretical frameworks. Without doubt, human rights will continue to influence the geopolitical and socioeconomic dynamics of states at the international level.

Bibliography

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Baxi, U., ‘Human rights education: The promise of the third millennium?’, in G.J. Andreopulos & R.P. Claude ed., Human rights education for the twenty-first century, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, pp. 145-148.

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Footnotes

  1. T. Dunne & M. Hanson, ‘Human rights and International relations’, in M. Goodhart ed., Human rights: Politics and Practice, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009, p. 61.
  2. F. Merke & G. Pauselli, ‘Foreign policy and human rights advocacy: An exercise in measurement and explanation’, Human Rights Review, vol. 14 no. 2, 2013, p. 131, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  3. T. Dunne & M. Hanson, loc. Cit.
  4. P.R. Baehr, Non-governmental human rights organisations in international relations, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke, 2009, p. 19.
  5. Ibid
  6. ibid
  7. N. Rengger, ‘The world turned upside down? Human rights and international relations after 25 years’, International Affairs, vol. 87 no. 5, 2011, pp. 1162-1163, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  8. T. Dunne & M. Hanson, loc. cit.
  9. T. Dunne & M. Hanson, loc. cit.
  10. U. Tulli, ‘Whose rights are human rights? The ambiguous emergence of human rights and the demise of Kissingerism’, Cold War History, vol. 12 no. 4, 2013, p. 573, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  11. T. Dunne & M. Hanson, op. cit., p. 67.
  12. M. Monshipouri, ‘Tracing David P. Forsythe’s intellectual evolution: From human rights and world politics (1983) to human rights in international relations (2006)’, Journal of Human Rights, vol. 11 no. 3, 2012, p. 319, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  13. J. Cohen, ‘Whose sovereignty? Empire versus international law’, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 18 no. 3, 2004, p. 8, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  14. F. Merke & G. Pauselli, op. cit., p. 133.
  15. T. Coates, ‘Neither cosmopolitanism nor realism’, in B. Holden ed., Global democracy: Key debates, Routledge, London, pp. 89-90.
  16. D.W. Hill, ‘Estimating the effects of human rights treaties on state behaviour’, The Journal of Politics, vol. 72 no. 4, 2010, p. 1164, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  17. Ibid
  18. T. Coates, op. cit., p. 95
  19. I. Brownlie, The principles of international law, 6th and, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 003, p. 29.
  20. J. Cohen, op. cit, p. 11.
  21. T. Coates, op. cit., p. 89.
  22. T. Dunne & M. Hanson, op. cit., p. 63
  23. M. Monshipouri, op. cit., pp. 318-319.
  24. R. Blakeley, ‘Human rights, state wrongs, and social change: The theory and practice of emancipation’, Review of International Studies, vol. 39 no. 3, 2013, p. 600, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  25. R. Blakely, op. cit., pp. 599-600.
  26. D. Karsay & O. Lewis, ‘Disability, torture and ill-treatment: Taking stock and ending abuses’, International Journal of Human Rights, vol. 16 no. 16, 2012, p. 820, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  27. R., Blakely, op. cit., p. 601.
  28. T. Dunne & M. Hanson, op. cit., p. 65
  29. R. Blakely, op. cit., p. 602.
  30. U. Baxi, ‘Human rights education: The promise of the third millennium?’, in G.J. Andreopulos & R.P. Claude ed., Human rights education for the twenty-first century, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, pp. 145-148.
  31. D.W. Hill, op. Cit., p. 1161.
  32. M. Monshipouri, op. cit., p. 319.
  33. T. Dunne & M. Hanson, op. cit., p. 66.
  34. F. Merke & G. Pauselli, op. cit., p. 133
  35. S.R. Bell, K.C. Clay & A. Murdie, ‘Neighbourhood watch: Spatial effects of human rights INGOs’, The Journal of Politics, vol. 74 no. 2, 2012, p. 355, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  36. Ibid
  37. Ibid
  38. O.C. Okafar, Legitimizing human rights NGO’s: Lessons from Nigeria, Africa World Press, Inc, Trenton, NJ, 2006, p. 124.
  39. R.K.M. Smith, ‘Human rights in international law’, in M. Goodhart ed., Human rights: Politics and practice, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009, p. 27.
  40. C. Reus-Smit, ‘International law’, J. Baylis, S. Smith & P. Owens ed., Globalisation of world politics: Introduction to international relations, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011, p. 278.
  41. F. Merke & G. Pauselli, op. cit., p. 134.
  42. G. Mantilla, ‘Emerging international human rights norms for transitional corporations’, Global Governance, vol. 15 no. 2, 2009, p. 281, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  43. Ibid
  44. G. Mantilla, op. cit., p. 282.
  45. G. Mantilla, op. cit., p. 283
  46. M. Monshipouri, op. cit., p. 318.
  47. G. Mantilla, loc. cit.
  48. Ibid
  49. G. Mantilla, op. cit., p. 285.
  50. J.G. Ruggie, ‘Global governance and new governance theory: Lessons from business and human rights’, Global Governance, vol. 20 no. 1, 2014, p. 9, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  51. D.W. Hill, op. cit., p. 1163.
  52. J.G. Ruggie, op. cit., p. 11.
  53. D.W. Hill, loc. cit.
  54. Ibid
  55. O.P. Ruppel, ‘Regional economic communities and human rights in east and southern Africa’, Journal of Politics, vol. 74 no. 2, 2012, P. 277, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  56. R. Teitel, ‘Humanity’s law: Rule of law for the new global politics’, Cornell International Law Journal, vol. 35 no. 2, 2002, p. 362, Academic Search Premier [online database], Web.
  57. O.C. Ruppel, op. cit., pp. 277-279.
  58. O.C. Ruppel, op. cit., p. 279-280.
  59. O.C. Ruppel, op. cit., p. 281
  60. Ibid
  61. Ibid