Human Rights and the Borders of Suffering: The Promotion of Human Rights in International Politics

By M. Anne Brown | Go to book overview

2
The construction of human rights:
dominant approaches

THE IDEA OF human rights covers a complex and fragmentary terrain. As R. J. Vincent comments near the beginning of his work on human rights in international relations, ‘human rights’ is a readily used term that has become a ‘staple of world politics’, the meaning of which is by no means self-evident (1986: 7). After glossing the term as the ‘idea that humans have rights’ (1986: 7) – a deceptively simple approach – Vincent notes that this is a profoundly contested territory, philosophically as well as politically. This is not surprising, as notions of human rights draw indirectly or directly on some of our most deeply embedded presumptions and reference-points – for those of us in liberal democracies, particularly those cosmologies concerning the nature of the person and of political community. Questions about and concepts of the human as individual, of what is right, the state, justice, freedom, equality, and so on, flicker like a constellation of stars just off the edge of our fields of analysis – fading in and out, holding much, promising or claimed as anchorage, yet elusive and obscure. For many, the assertion of human rights has become a kind of repository of secular virtue – a declaration of the sacred in the absence of the divine. In the Western liberal democracies, human rights are claimed as political home or as a principal ‘instrument of struggle’ by the libertarian right, by liberals of various persuasions, by socialists who feel the traditional socialist agenda has been overtaken by events and by ‘post-liberal democrats’. To declare in a debate that the matter at hand involves rights can be to ‘trump’ discussion, drawing the limits beyond which exchange may not go, in a way that Ronald Dworkin (1977, 1984) probably did not intend. The language of rights thus carries great power while being potentially deeply divided against itself.

The purpose of this chapter is to draw attention to 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’. In particular, I want to underline the limitations of these orders of thought, the narrowness of some of their central categories and the disfiguring

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Human Rights and the Borders of Suffering: The Promotion of Human Rights in International Politics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • I - The Question of Human Rights 1
  • 1 - Opening Up Conceptions of Rights 3
  • 2 - The Construction of Human Rights- Dominant Approaches 19
  • 3 - The Pursuit of Grounds 56
  • II - Case Studies 90
  • 4 - China – The Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 93
  • 5 - East Timor 128
  • 6 - The Status of Indigenous Australians 162
  • 7 - Conclusion 198
  • References 212
  • Index 221
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