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

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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.[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...
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