Human rights and International Relations – Study Circle 2015-2017

Human rights and International Relations – Study Circle 2015-2017

Overall Topic
Immanuel Kant observes that even though relations between states are unrestrained and depraved, nobody has yet been so bold as to deny that there is some moral norm to govern these relations, and they have felt the need to justify their conduct. To this purpose, they have used Grotius, Pufendorf, Vattel and others, though the rules expounded by these authors, according to Kant, can have no legal force.
However, the fact that states feel this need to justify themselves is a sign for Kant that there is a greater moral disposition in man. We will not take a stand on this last point, but we do feel that this need for justification requires some further explanation, and this will be our object in what follows. Since Kant’s time the situation has evolved and several huge shifts has taken place in international relations: 1) from the ethical dimension of the international relations to the legal dimension; 2) from the national to the international status of human rights; 3) the development of a International Relations theory finding its the normative basis in the anarchic, chaotic and mythological character of international relations. We will have to take these shifts into account, but the need for justification or vulnerability towards critiques is is still there today and this is particularly noticeable in how states relate to human rights. One example of special interest to our circle is Eastern Europe and Latin America during the 1980-s and 1990-s, where the growing importance of civil society was seen as an anti-statist position against repressive state-socialist regimes. The Helsinki Accords gave leverage for such a critique and these regimes manifested great susceptibility to any such critique. The dissidents’
aim was to oppose the socialist state apparatuses and to create alternative practices to what was dictated by the single party in power. Thus, the moral choice of the dissidents to live in constant exposure to the risk of repression was made in the name of human rights and civil liberties. It was considered as a stance emphasizing human dignity and attracted attention and respect among like-minded people, both home and abroad. Positive comments on the dissidents’ legacy in global political activism were, however, set against the negative analysis of their failure to contribute to the post-socialist development of a civil society. (Ivancheva) During the last 20 years human rights remained in the main part of domestic policy in the Eastern European states, and was the basis for the development of citizenship, a permanent topic in their foreign policy. The harmonization of the person-state relation has domestic as well as international dimensions and this opens a new field about how the state in Eastern Europe evolves within international relations explaining connections between human beings and states in a new light on the basis of International Law.
Another interesting example is China. During the 1990-s China fought fiercely to avoid critique of its human rights record in the UN Human Rights Commission and they have used economical and other leverages to dissuade other nations from sponsoring such critiques. (Wan, 2001: 111 ff.) This has been costly in diplomatic terms, since it had to make concessions to rally allies and dissuade critics. (Wan 2001: 125-126.) China has also used resources on the intellectual level to defend the Chinese position and attack the critics on their own ground. After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 the Chinese government organized extensive studies in human rights with the purpose of providing the authorities with arguments and elaborating an alternative position. (Wei, 1995: 87.) This would signal that the Chinese government took China’s reputations in the human rights area very serious.
Finally we can cite another example showing how anxious certain governments are to silences
criticism. In November 2012 the new Human Rights Council was elected. A majority of unfree or partially free countries according to Freedom House rankings was elected to the Council. The members of each geographic group has to be elected by a majority of the General assembly, but in all other groups apart from the Western European group only the number of countries to be elected is proposed for election, so that the group decides for itself who is to be elected. This allows certain groups to elect notorious human rights violators to the Council. In this way they can take control of the Council in order to silence criticism and direct attention elsewhere. Also according to Jacob Mchangama and Aaron Rhodes dictatorships have virtually taken control of the committee, which awards consultative status to nongovernmental organizations in order to keep critical organizations out. ( This necessitates efforts to get elected using economical and political leverage within the group. Important resources are spent on this question, but why is it so important for countries to avoid criticism of its human rights record? If a given country was dissatisfied with this critique it could just ignore it. If international relations are all about power and power relations such a critique could have no real impact. Foreign office officials don’t seem to think like this.


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Proposal for New Study Circle – International Relations and Human Rights

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