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The Politics of Human Rights: A Global Perspective / Edition 2

The Politics of Human Rights: A Global Perspective / Edition 2

by Tony Evans


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The Politics of Human Rights: A Global Perspective / Edition 2

This book takes a critical look at the state of universal human rights in the context of globalization. Tony Evans argues that the state's central role in protecting and promoting rights has been severely weakened under globalization and that as a consequence human rights are becoming less attainable. As the value of the market grows, the value of individual human rights decreases.

The author departs from traditional interpretations of human rights by focusing on the political economy of human rights rather than on the philosophical or legal aspects. He analyses how issues related to globalization, such as the environment, population movement patterns and free trade impact on individual human rights. In conclusion, he argues that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other major treaties must be renegotiated to take globalization into account.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745323732
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 06/29/2005
Series: Human Security in the Global Economy Series
Edition description: Second edition
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Tony Evans is a Reader in Global Politics at the University of Southampton. His previous books include US Hegemony and the Project of Universal Human Rights (Macmillan, 1996) and Human Rights Fifty Years On: A Reappraisal (Manchester, 1998).

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The Politics of Universal Human Rights

The purpose of this chapter is to place the development of the universal human rights regime within the context of post-Second World War global order. It begins with an examination of the relationship between human rights and configurations of power that characterized the post-World War order. This suggests that the current conception of human rights, like all dominant conceptions of rights, is the outcome of a political struggle aimed at achieving moral legitimacy. These questions are explored in more detail in Chapter 2, where the tripartite nature of human rights talk is also discussed. A section looks at the rise of human rights in the post-Second World War order and, more particularly, the role of the United States in placing human rights on the global political agenda. A further section looks at the socialist and less developed countries' challenge to the US's conception of universal human rights. The clash of ideologies, which was at the core of all Cold War struggles, meant that the United States moved to distance itself from the human rights regime under construction at the United Nations. Rather than engage in a global dialogue on the nature of human rights that gave voice to a full range of cultures, religions, and ideologies, the US used its considerable political and economic power to promote a particular conception of human rights that sought to legitimate its own interests and those of global capital. A penultimate section suggests that the post-Cold War order, which some suggest marks the end of the contemporary struggle over the concept of human rights, will not provide a more propitious context for rights than in the past. Finally, some brief remarks will be made about the future of universal human rights, in preparation for the following chapters.


The creation of the United Nations placed universal human rights at the centre of global politics. Human rights are mentioned in the UN Charter seven times, including Article 68, which calls for the creation of the Commission on Human Rights. The Commission completed the final draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) during its first eighteen months of deliberations, a remarkable achievement, rarely matched before or since, for reaching any international agreement. That the UDHR remains the single, most important statement of human rights norms, more than fifty years later, places this achievement into even sharper perspective. In the following decades the Commission drafted a series of legally binding treaties, the most important of which are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Other legally binding instruments include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention), the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatments or Punishments (Torture Convention) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Commission also put in place procedures for implementing the rights set out in these treaties, including monitoring, periodic reports and arbitration. The Americas, Africa and Europe have also established regional human rights regimes with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Yet, despite all this activity, violations of human rights are almost a commonplace. Newspapers and other news media are filled with graphic reports and images of human rights violations, describing acts widely acknowledged as unlawful under international law. The disjuncture between the formal norms set out under international law and the normal practices of governments, transnational corporations, international financial institutions, the military and the police suggest two possibilities. The first, which human rights scholars widely accept, is that the international community has not matched its enthusiasm for setting human rights standards with a similar enthusiasm for creating the necessary machinery to implement those standards. Although the Commission on Human Rights has developed monitoring procedures and advisory programmes for implementing state obligations under international law, commentators generally acknowledge that these are weak. The problem of how to secure universal values in an international system of sovereign states, defined by the principles of domestic jurisdiction and non-intervention, remains at the centre of this observation. The second possibility concerns an approach to securing human rights that emphasizes post-violation redress, rather than an alternative approach that looks at the causes of violations and the means of prevention. This approach is reflected in the recent creation of an International Criminal Court and the courts set up to try perpetrators of human rights crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. That the causes of many violations might be found in the structures of the global political economy, and the interests that these structures support, may offer some insight into why redress is favoured over structural reform. This second reason for the failure to provide adequate protection for human rights offers a central theme throughout this book.

As noted in the Introduction, and discussed in greater detail in Chapter 2, the theory and practice of human rights is generally conducted in the language of legal and philosophical reason, which focuses upon international law, methods of implementation and the source, justification and meaning of rights. If political questions concerning power and interest are considered at all, commentators usually view them within a realist or international society conception of global politics, which stresses the principles of sovereignty, domestic jurisdiction and non-intervention in the affairs of legitimate states (Kennan 1985; Vincent 1986). In this construction of the human rights debate, the legal, philosophical and political discourses that constitute 'human rights talk' adopt a liberal framework (Vincent 1986), leaving little room for alternative conceptions or interpretations that might raise challenging questions about current theory and practice. What legitimating role do human rights play in the current global order? Do all individuals and groups benefit from the dominant conception of universal human rights? Why do powerful Western liberal democracies so vigorously defend their particular conception of human rights? What role does the global political economy play in securing or denying access to the means for protecting human rights? Is international law the most effective way of promoting all human rights? Can we sustain the claim that human rights and democracy are two sides of the same coin, as many Western commentators assume? What is the future of human rights in the age of globalization? Although some authors have attempted to look at these questions in recent times, the dominant epistemology of human rights does not encourage such enquiry.

The convention of understanding 'progress' in the field of human rights by reference to law, including the creation of international institutions, reflects a widely held assumption that reason and rationality have triumphed over politics. These assumptions are often reflected in the assertion that the creation of the UDHR represents a symbolic moment of 'arrival', when the reason of rights finally prevailed, following two hundred years of struggle (Raphael 1967). At the end of the Cold War, which for some marks the 'end of history' (Fukuyama 1989), all that is left for the human rights debate are technical issues to do with improving implementational procedures and drafting new international laws that clarify already legitimated and universally accepted norms. If politics has any further role, it is confined to disagreements over these technical issues, which are themselves conditioned by the 'givens' of the existing, liberal world order. Power and interests are no longer part of the struggle for human rights. Consequently, with 'depressing regularity', those engaged in the theory and practice of human rights are prone to offering us exhortations of optimism and hope, which are 'almost always expressed in the passive voice to increase its apparent authority' (Watson 1979). What such an approach indicates is that the author's argument is based more upon his or her perceptions of human nature, including a vision of how human beings 'ought' to treat one another, rather than the theory and practice of the current human rights regime.

For the critical reader, or simply the puzzled observer, the optimism found in the literature cannot be reconciled with the overwhelming evidence of human rights violations. What this situation reveals is the failure to take full account of the social and political construction of rights, the particular configuration of world order in which the current human rights regime operates and the interests that the current regime sustains. Given the political context of both the French and American revolutions, which are widely understood as seminal moments in the modern human rights movement, this seems a strange omission. These revolutions represent the climax of the struggle to overthrow an old social order and legitimate the new. They are revolutions in the sense that they sought a radical transformation of the accepted principles of social organization, rather than a mere seizure of power within the existing order. Thus, the principles of the new order – the people as sovereign, the authority of the civil administration and the rights of the citizen – replaced the principles of the old order – the divine right of kings, the authority of the Church and a duty to obey the monarch. Following the success of these revolutions, the old order, which for centuries provided the social context for political and economic action, was revealed as oppressive and tyrannical and the new as offering the conditions for human dignity, personal freedom and a future without fear.

From these historic events we can conclude that moral claims are closely linked to processes associated with the legitimation of interests. In other words, 'ideas and practices concerning human rights are created by people in particular historical, social and economic circumstances' (Stammers 1995: 488, original emphasis). The regimes that emerged from the French and American revolutions sought to legitimate their authority through the new language of natural law and human rights, which suggested an inclusive harmony of interests. The separation of private and economic life from public and political life, which is central to natural rights, was presented as a moral imperative in the interests of all the people, not the outcome of new power relationships that served the interests of particular groups. Although natural rights did not reveal 'any universal truths about the relationship between individuals, society and the state' (Stammers 1993: 74), it provided a moral justification for overthrowing the old order and replacing it with one that legitimated the interests of the dominant group in the new. As Issa Shivji has argued, human rights 'mirror the struggles and concerns of the dominant groups in society at a particular time as these groups organize and reorganize to maintain their position' or to overthrow the existing order (Shivji 1999: 253).

The political discourse on human rights therefore seems to offer two possible views of the role of power. The first suggests 'power to the people'; where appeal to human rights offers a moral claim that trumps all other claims to the legitimate use of power, including law. The second sees human rights as 'power over people', expressed in exclusionary practices that deny the full participation of those who fail to support the interests of the dominant group (Evans 1997a). If the contradictions between ideas of freedom and the practice of exclusion are noted at all, the dominant group typically justifies these by arguing either that the excluded do not have the moral capacity to engage fully in decision-making processes or by simply labelling them 'mad' (Hindess 1992; Keeley 1990). Thus, the concept of human rights often supports competing conceptions that give a focus to deeply rooted political struggles. Put another way, the formal, institutionalized and legal practices of human rights reflect and sustain the interests of a dominant group in the existing order, while informal, privately motivated and, on occasion, extralegal action reflects the interest of an alternative order (Stammers 1999). Such a conclusion does, of course, raise questions about the role and status of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who seek to promote human rights through formal means. The answers to these questions are not pursued here, but may rely upon understanding NGOs as co-opted organizations that lend further legitimacy to the established order, rather than a radical movement that seeks to challenge that order (Taylor 2001).


The United Nations Charter placed the promotion of human rights at the centre of the post-Second World War order. Given the historic relationship between human rights and interests described above, we have little reason to believe that the postwar order is any different from that of the past: human rights and interests remain inexorably linked. During much of the postwar period, hegemony has referred to the existence of a single dominant state, possessed of the material capabilities and political will to maintain a world order that reflects the hegemon's own interests (Keohane 1984). In this context, the promotion of universal values, like human rights, might seem a distraction, particularly in an order said to be characterized by sovereignty, hegemony and the principles of non-intervention. However, social and political control is not maintained solely through the threat of military coercion, although on occasion the threat and use of force may be necessary, but rather through a system of formal and informal norms and rules that legitimate and shape the actions of weaker states. Recalling the French and American revolutions, at times of radical change in world order, the emergent hegemon seeks to distinguish itself from the past by articulating values that express its moral superiority in the new era.

Explaining this phenomenon requires an examination of the hegemon's need to command obedience to rules that support its own interests without resort to the costly use of force. Recent attempts to explain this phenomenon have drawn upon the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argues that coercion alone cannot guarantee the long-term success of a hegemon, particularly where the resources necessary for coercion do not grow at the same rate as the hegemon's sphere of influence. Instead, the hegemon must foster a consensus around a set of values that support the hegemon's interests. Hegemony is therefore sustained in two ways: first, externally, by administering rewards and punishments and, secondly, internally, by providing 'intellectual and moral leadership' that shapes the beliefs, wants, opinions and values that reflect the hegemon's interests (Gramsci 1996: 57-8). In Gramsci's conception of hegemony, order is maintained through a 'common social-moral language' that expresses a singular vision of reality, 'informing with its spirit all forms of thought and behaviour' (Femia 1987: 24). The highest form of hegemony is exercised when the hegemon's values are accepted as 'common sense' (Gramsci 1971: 419-25). Expressed more formally, less powerful actors are subject to processes of 'socialization' that bind the ruler and the ruled in a consensual order that legitimates power (Ikenberry & Kupchan 1990). In short, the hegemon exercises control through a combination of might and the legitimation of right.

Gramsci's conception of hegemony offers the prospect of gaining an insight into the postwar politics of rights, including the role of the United States as the new global hegemon. The postwar economic potential of the United States was greater than any other country. US interests held more than 70 per cent of global financial assets and manufacturing output nearly doubled between 1938 and 1946, while other industrialized economies either declined or stagnated (UN Statistical Yearbook 1948). To exploit this historic opportunity, the United States sought to establish a new postwar world order safe for American export of goods and capital (Cafruny 1989: 110). Without finding new markets, postwar overproduction promised high unemployment, social unrest and a return to the days of the Depression. Added to this were isolationist calls to withdraw US troops from Europe immediately peace broke out, which, if heeded, would add millions to the ranks of the unemployed. To circumvent these dangers, the United States pursued two broad policies: first, support for postwar reconstruction in Europe and other regions of the world, a policy intended to re-establish markets as quickly as possible; and second, the establishment of a high-profile military presence in selected strategic countries to protect and police those markets.


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Copyright © 2005 Tony Evans.
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Table of Contents


1 The Politics of Universal Human Rights

2 The Discourse of Universal Human Rights 

3 International Human Rights Law and Global Politics 

4 The Political Economy of Human Rights 

5 Globalization, Democracy and Human Rights 

6 The Promise of Global Community and Human Rights



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