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Human rights in international relations

For a long time international relations (IR) have been regarded as a playing field for states, where human beings are subordinated to each state through social contract. IR theories have primarily sought to understand the relations between states whether the relation being conflictual or cooperative. As human rights gained increasing importance after the Second World War, these theories have provided some useful perspectives in studying human rights. This essay will seek to evaluate the role of human rights in IR with reference to the English School.

The role of human rights in international relations, in a very simple phrase, is to achieve justice. This is a complex task since there is no definite agreement on what justice is, how to achieve it or whether it is desirable to pursue it at all. This paper will argue that the English School is useful in looking at human rights in three main aspects: understanding the extent to which human right constitute common values and interest among states; whether states conceive themselves to be bound by the rules of human rights; and the relationship between state sovereignty and human rights in the context of conflict between order and justice.

Since human rights themselves are ‘ideas’, they take effect in the real world through various mechanisms in which these ideas are institutionalised. This paper will focus on two of these mechanisms: international law and humanitarian intervention. These two are chosen because international law is a core institution in IR representing common values and rules among states, and humanitarian intervention shows how state practices coincide with the emerging idea of human rights. Both of them also reveal how states are engaged in constant tension between state sovereignty and human rights. Before proceeding to further discussion, first some core ideas of the English School will be presented.

English School views international relations as a society of states, defined as ‘a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions’ (Bull 1995:13). Based on three traditions of political philosophy – Hobbes, Kant, and Grotius – English School entails elements of anarchy, moral imperatives, rules and institutions. While acknowledging that states are in a system of anarchy, cooperation within anarchy is possible through social rules and institutions which bind states with common interests and values. Since there is no international overarching authority to enforce order, cooperation is based on states’ mutual recognition of equal sovereignty and their shared interests to co-exist. Main purpose of such society is the preservation of the society of states, maintaining independence of individual states, and peace (Bull 1995:16-18).

Order is important in international society, defined as ‘a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary or primary goals of the society of states’ (Bull 1995:8). Because states are the main actors in international society, order is maintained by a compact of mutual agreement that their existence will be secured by ideas of state sovereignty and self-determination. Order is perceived as the condition in which states can reside with minimum conflict and thus English School is cautious about moral values or pursuit of ‘justice’ that may cause disorder. This is where the support for international human rights may conflict with order. However, it is not the individual rights per se generate disorder, but the duties that arise from the rights. Demand for human rights impose duties on persons or groups other than a person’s own state, which means that an action to satisfy the demand may transcend the boundaries of states and thus disrupt order (Bull 1971:275). The tension between order and justice is most evident in the debate between pluralism and solidarism, mainly on whether there are universally agreed moral standards. Pluralists claim that there is no such agreement and the diversity among states should be maintained by non-intervention. In contrast, solidarists believe that ‘diverse communities can and do reach agreement about substantive moral standards and that international society has moral agency to uphold those standards’ (Bellamy 2003:325). Solidarists focus on the idea of creating ‘good states’ whereas pluralists support ‘good relations’ between states (Vincent and Wilson 1993:125).

International Law

International law is an integral part of international society as an institution providing rules for states’ cooperation (Bull 1995:132). The first point is whether it coherently expresses shared values of human rights among states. International law had been primarily concerned with the maintenance order, as seen in provisions such as the UN Charter Article 2(4) restricting the use of force and Article 2(7) supporting non-intervention principle (Jackson 2000:18). Human rights law has gained significance since the end of Second World War. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was established in 1948 although it had no legally binding effect. Two Covenants were signed in 1966 with an intention to create enforceable treaties with more specified rights. Subsequently, several Conventions were introduced with focus on particular issues such as torture, children and women’s rights. These issues were given jus cogen status, which means that these values are so important that they prevail over other values. (Forsythe 2006:39-41) All these laws came into existence by states’ agreement to incorporate justice into international relations, establishing human rights as a common value of international society.

Secondly, in terms of state practice, states do not seem as much to conceive themselves to be bound by these rules as their rhetoric of human rights protection (Birdsall 2009:30). The disagreement between the international community and the government of Yugoslavia in the process of creating International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) illustrates the problem of state reluctance. While majority opinion in the UN supported the ICTY as a multilateral means to enforce internationally agreed justice, the government of Yugoslavia objected on two grounds. First, it claimed the UN had no right to intervene in its internal affairs. Second, if the international community indeed recognised the existence of universal justice, creation of a permanent international tribunal based on sovereign equality of states would be desirable than a selective approach targeting only at Yugoslavia (Birdsall 2009:100-101). The ad hoc tribunal was a consequence of compromise between the claim for order and justice. While accepting the presence of universal justice and the need to ‘do something’ in the circumstance of violation, states were careful not to set a precedence of justice prevailing order by stressing the uniqueness of Yugoslavia and the temporariness of the tribunal. Although the ICTY case favoured justice over order in comparison to earlier judicial interventions, states did not conceive themselves to be strictly bound by human rights law and therefore opened the scope for compromise.

The difficulty of enforcing human rights law results from its declaratory nature. While classical law is past-oriented affirmation of precedents, human rights law is future-oriented declaration (Jackson 2000:124). Unlike English School’s logic of common interests creating rules and institutions, legal institutions of human rights may be an example of where establishment of institutions create and consolidate certain interests in a normative way. From this perspective, the International Criminal Court may help strengthen justice by prosecuting individuals who commit crimes against universal values even when the society of states is unwilling or unable to do so (Ralph 2007:21).

Humanitarian Intervention

Role of humanitarian intervention is to alleviate the sufferings of people within a state’s border through an armed interference (Morris and Wheeler 1996:135). Pluralists and solidarists present contrasting views on whether humanitarian intervention has become a common value among states. Pluralist object intervention for two reasons: selectivity and the subjectivity of justice (Bull 1995:85). In conditions where there is no agreement on what human rights are, enforcement of human rights will be based on interests of prominent states which may threat other values and break the rule of sovereign equality. Nevertheless, intervention may be allowed if there is strong consensus and agreement among states. This is reflected in existing international rules where an intervention gains legitimacy only under the Security Council authorisation based on Article 7 of the UN Charter.

On the other hand, solidarists believe that there are universal human rights from natural law and humanitarian intervention should be allowed when these basic rights are violated. Vincent argues that Henry Shue’s three basic rights are shared by all human beings and humanitarian intervention is only acceptable when these basic rights are grossly violated, because too frequent interventions may lead to injustice (Vincent 1999:127). Andrew Hurrell (2003:36-40) goes even further and suggests possibility of moving towards a world society. Globalisation has changed international society into a denser network of shared institutions and practices within which social expectations of global justice are more securely established. In such society, states gain legitimacy in terms of bearers of duties and agents ‘for’ individuals.

Although both pluralists and solidarists recognize possibilities of intervention whether it should be based on states’ agreement or basic rights, state practices seem to suggest that state sovereignty and national interest continue to be the predominant factors. Three early interventions in Uganda, East Pakistan and Cambodia show there was little support for the idea of humanitarian intervention. In each case, states used self-defence to justify interventions to prove their actions were not illegal, which reflected their perception of the illegitimacy of the idea of humanitarian intervention (Morris 1991, cited in Wheeler 1992:472-3). Later cases of Iraqi Kurds, Somalia and Rwanda do not differ greatly in a sense that they were characterised by states’ self-interest, media and public pressure, and attitudes against precedent-setting by stressing ‘extraordinary’ feature of each case (Morris and Wheeler 1996:160). In Bosnia and Kosovo, Western governments’ ‘casualty free’ operation in the fear of losing domestic public support overrode the humanitarian motives (Wheeler 2000:284).

Finally, English School points out that it is misleading to think the relations between state sovereignty and human rights only in terms of order versus justice. Order is important because it contains a moral value itself by providing a platform upon which minimum justice can be preserved. In other words, maintaining order is a preliminary condition for justice. It implies that a decision to intervene should consider the moral value of order and the potential consequences of disorder an intervention may bring about (Wheeler 1992:487). When an order is found unjust and states feel the need to change it through realization of justice, it should be done to the extent that the change does not jeopardize the order as a whole (Bull 1971:281).

In addition, difficulty of humanitarian intervention may lie in the conflict between different notions of justice. For example, states regard protection of national interest as their first duty, which itself is a matter of justice. From this perspective, states juggle between their primary responsibility to protect national security and any wider moral obligations when deciding humanitarian intervention (Wheeler 1992:485). Therefore, it is difficult to assert either way whether humanitarian intervention achieves justice or causes disorder. Order and justice enter into a value system and they will always be considered by the parties concerned in relation to the merits of a particular case (Bull 1995:93).


Role of international relations can be summarized into three main functions in English School’s theory of international society: human rights as common interests of the society, binding force on states as a common set of rules, and achieving justice. With particular reference to international law and humanitarian intervention, it has been argued that there is growing recognition of and commitment to human rights as a common value among states. However, state practices have been relatively weak in terms of translating these ideals into reality. State sovereignty and non-intervention are still the basic principles of inter-state relations. By placing the entire discussion of state sovereignty and human rights within a larger context of order and justice, English School provides that these two concepts are not necessarily conflictual: order may be a preliminary condition for justice and an unjust order is not likely to sustain.

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