2 July 2003

Rethinking human rights

By Tapani Lausti

David Chandler (ed.), Rethinking Human Rights : Critical Approaches to International Politics. Palgrave Macmillan 2002.

During the last decade or so, much of the world media has been celebrating the arrival of human rights agenda into the heart of international relations. A new era of elightenment has been declared. Yet, nobody has been able to show that the highly praised "humanitarian interventions" have really enhanced human rights in the countries which have been at the receiving end of these supposedly well-meaning attacks.

In fact, as the contributions to this book show, the use of military power by powerful states has denied the people of these countries the ability to govern themselves. John Laughland expresses the worry that "human rights activists are in danger of aggravating the very thing they say they want to eliminate, namely the wielding of power without responsibility, because international bodies are, by definition, beyond the reach of democratic accountability". (p. 38)

The articles collected under David Chandler's editorship show convincingly the shortcomings in the thinking of the new cosmopolitan theorists who have attacked the principle of state sovereignty, claiming that defending human rights has to overcome the principle of non-intervention in other countries' internal matters.

At worst, these theorists seem to elevate themselves into a world elite which will determine the standard of human rights in various countries, thus by-passing the local citizens whose capacity to understand these matters they view with suspicion. It seems that the concept of state sovereignty is poorly understood among the new humanitarians. They fail to see that the state sovereignty system as embodied in the UN Charter and international law aimed to make states equal in spite of differences in power. It was to stop big nations from attacking smaller ones.

Take this principle away, and big powers will feel free to attack smaller ones. As Chandler remarks in his introduction: "While the United States and its allies acquire new rights to judge which regimes deserve to remain in power and which should be deposed, states which lack major military and economic resources become sidelined in international affairs and the object of new mechanisms of international regulation." (p. 13)

In the Balkans the big powers launched with great fanfare the new policy of one-sided right to intervention. Laughland writes: "NATO launched its high-altitude bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in March 1999, ostensibly because the need to protect human rights demanded it. The following month, NATO formalized this 'new strategic concept' and claimed the moral right to intervene unilaterally against sovereign states because of their domestic policies, something specifically ruled out by the United Nations Charter." (p. 40)

The record so far would seem to support Jon Holbrook's conclusion: "Unaccountable, externally imposed solutions, through the force of economic sanctions or military intervention, are less likely to help resolve humanitarian crises than assistance and cooperation with locally and regionally accountable authorities who have a lasting interest in a sustainable and long-term solution." (p. 153)

Philip Hammond draws attention to the unhappy role of some journalists in this new make-believe world. Especially in Bosnia and Rwanda many journalists distorted the reality by "simplistic narratives of good versus evil, and the sympathies developed by some reporters have led them to welcome attacks on those designated as unworthy victims".

Hammond comments: "Although often presented as critical and oppositional stance, its real significance lies in the promotion of a morally loaded, human rights-based discourse which has echoed and encouraged the development of similar themes by powerful Western governments. Journalism which advocates tough military intervention by Western powers has often left the consequences of actual Western involvement largely unexamined." (p. 176)

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