The promotion of human rights in international politics

This book argues for greater openness in the ways we approach human rights and international rights promotion, and in so doing brings some new understanding to old debates. Starting with the realities of abuse rather than the liberal architecture of rights, it casts human rights as a language for probing the political dimensions of suffering. Seen in this context, the predominant Western models of right generate a substantial but also problematic and not always emancipatory array of practices. These models are far from answering the questions about the nature of political community that are raised by the systemic infliction of suffering. Rather than a simple message from ‘us’ to ‘them’, then, rights promotion is a long and difficult conversation about the relationship between political organisations and suffering. Three case studies are explored: the Tiananmen Square massacre, East Timor's violent modern history and the circumstances of indigenous Australians. The purpose of these discussions is not to elaborate on a new theory of rights, but to work towards rights practices that are more responsive to the spectrum of injury that we inflict and endure.

This book's argument takes as its point of departure the question of how to promote human rights observance in international life. The whole complex business of international human rights promotion is not approached here as a particularly ‘innocent’ enterprise. The argument here proceeds from the understanding, or the presumption, that questions of human rights are also part of the much broader context of people's repeated efforts to work against the systemic infliction of suffering in political life and to create conditions of life that do not turn upon the generation of such suffering. Within international politics, and according to the Westphalian order, a distinction, indeed a complex opposition, is commonly drawn between the proper domain of politics and that of ethics, with human rights standardly classed with ethics. This book explores three case studies: the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, East Timor's violent modern history, and the health of Australian Aborigines.

in Human rights and the borders of suffering
Dominant approaches

In his work on human rights in international relations, R. J. Vincent states that ‘human rights’ is a readily used term that has become a ‘staple of world politics’. This chapter examines some of the orders of thought that dominate human rights promotion and shape the meaning of this powerful, complex and in some ways contradictory tool of rights and ‘rights talk’. First, it considers the polarity of universalism and relativism that structures much of what it is possible to say on human rights. Second, it looks at the story of the Lockean social contract, as one still potent myth of the origin for human rights and more broadly as a mechanism for conceptualising the human political community and ethics in the liberal state. The chapter questions the adequacy of these constructions for responding to the complexity of systemic infliction of injury. It then looks at the dominant theoretical accounts of international politics that have formed a central platform for the debate and, to some extent, for practice regarding rights in the international arena.

in Human rights and the borders of suffering
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This chapter explores the debate between universalism and cultural relativism. Certain powerful accounts of sovereignty seem to be the primary hinge around which the terms of the debate between universalism and relativism turn. The power of sovereignty was the power (in principle) of the particularist government to override all other claims to (worldly) authority. Despite radical shifts in the state system since Westphalia, this broadly constitutive element continues to serve as a powerful inscription of particularism. State-building practices over several centuries ensured that they came to take on the mantle of a fundamental unit of political community, the sine qua non of human community and, to a greater or lesser extent, the theatre of ethical life. This chapter also considers the work of some contemporary theorists who have attempted in different ways to bridge or to circumvent the polarity of relative and universal, including Richard Rorty, Chris Brown and Andrew Linklater. Finally, it examines the ‘Asian Way’ debate regarding human rights in the international domain.

in Human rights and the borders of suffering
in Human rights and the borders of suffering

During April and May of 1989, Beijing was the site of an extraordinary series of demonstrations and political actions that came to be known as ‘the Beijing Spring’. Protesters, which included students, called for democracy, freedom, dialogue with the government, the accountability of authorities and an end to corruption. This chapter explores how the principal categories of the Lockean narrative can shape the context for the understanding of and response to political injury. In the case of much of the Western response to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the conceptualisation of man and the state is particularly important, as is the related articulation of the realms of ethics and politics. The chapter questions the adequacy of the terms of the debate between citizenship rights and human rights. After noting the sharp emergence of human rights onto the agenda of dealings between China and the West following the Tiananmen killings, the chapter looks at the terms in which the story of the massacre was presented in much Western commentary of the time.

in Human rights and the borders of suffering
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East Timor was forcibly incorporated into Indonesia in 1975 and managed to become independent almost twenty-five years later. Now the territory, poised on the edge of statehood, is undergoing transition, but also flux and confusion. At the time of writing, the United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET) is effectively the Government of East Timor, with elections for a constituent assembly to determine a constitution expected in August 2001. This chapter examines the immediate background to Indonesia's violent process of incorporation and the pattern of abuse that characterised it. To emphasise human rights promotion as grounded in exchange with the actual patterns of social practice involved casts a different light on the apparent self-evidence of that polarisation, as the story of East Timor suggests. Effective self-determination and effective international understanding of and response to East Timor's evolving circumstances may be anything but simple. Answers to questions around how to build a reasonably peaceful political order that East Timor's circumstances pose for its own population and leadership, and for others, may be fundamental to how we understand political community.

in Human rights and the borders of suffering

There are a number of avenues through which the ‘place’ of indigenous people in Australia can be approached. One fundamental arena of struggle has been over land rights. The approach to rights taken here, however, starts from an account of suffering and sets out to trace the political roots of that suffering. One of the clearest forms of suffering to mark the lives of Australian Aborigines is entrenched and widespread ill-health. This chapter considers some of the limitations of those dominant understandings of rights that mark both international rights promotion and the constitution of the liberal state. It asks how we understand and pursue principles of participation, dialogue and negotiation. Approaching health as a matter of human rights can be contentious. This chapter analyses the construction of the ‘Aboriginal problem’, the 1992 Australian High Court decision on Aboriginal land rights (known as the ‘Mabo decision’), Commonwealth indigenous health policy from the 1970s to the 2000s, and self-determination and citizenship.

in Human rights and the borders of suffering
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This book has explored the promotion of human rights practices and approaches in international life. It has argued for a shift in approach—a greater preparedness to reflect on some of the categories by which we construct our sense of human rights and some acknowledgment of the limits of our understanding, or even of our ignorance, of the complex life to which these categories, particularly that of the human, refer. This way of conceptualising human rights has provided a remarkably powerful framework for the characterisation of both the individual and political community and for the identification of abuse. Moreover, it has to a significant extent shaped the terms in which general debate over human rights in international politics has been repeatedly cast, particularly the polarity of universalism and relativism, of the ‘rights of man’ and the citizen's rights, and of political and economic (or social or cultural) rights. Human rights practices are not part of a progression to perfection, or its approximation, but a way of working with the systemic generation of suffering.

in Human rights and the borders of suffering