The Emerging International Order, and the Future of Human Rights: Theoretical Perspectives and Critiques

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran

2 A PhD Candidate in International Relations, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran


Human rights have been the concern of not only activists and governments but also the scholars of international relations for decades. With its emphasis on civil and political rights and its individualist underpinnings, human rights discourse appeared to have become dominant in the last two decades of the twentieth century. However, it now faces significant, and perhaps very consequential challenges. Although it has been challenged from various perspectives for decades, it seems that these challenges have become more articulated and multidimensional. Moreover, in the aftermath of the decline of the US, the emergence of China as a great power, and the formation of a post-liberal international order, security concerns have become more significant compared to ethical or normative concerns. This might eventually be followed by the emergence of a non-liberal, non-individualistic set of international norms and values.
In this article, the authors show that theoretical reflections have not led to any agreement among various thinkers over the justification of human rights in spite of the fact that they may be its advocates. Communitarianism as an important rival for universalism challenges natural law tradition as a fundamental justification for universal human rights, and many theorists, even with cosmopolitan inclinations, do not find natural law as an appropriate justification for universalism. Furthermore, the dominant liberal conception of human rights itself has been criticized by influential figures such as Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, Onara O'Neil, and Makau Mutua for being abstract, individualistic, Eurocentric, and with little concern for human obligations. These authors suggest a more contextual understanding of human rights, more attention to collective rights, public awareness of the significance of community bonds, more consideration of  obligations towards others besides right claims, and becoming more aware of the need to end Eurocentric conscious or unconscious assumptions, methods, and understandings. These theoretical debates have become more significant in the post-liberal order in which security concerns have taken precedence over human rights promotion, and have led to violations of the universal narrative of human rights. On one hand, western powers, as the major advocates and promoters of liberal norms and values may not see human rights violations in the world as their main concern. On the other hand, China, as an emerging power is not part of the western world and its cultural Confucian tradition is characterized by being more collectivistic than individualistic. Therefore, it may eventually call for more emphasis on communitarianism and/or human obligations and collective rights. The combination of these two challenges have not been fully discussed by IR scholars. The main objective of this paper was to contribute to current debates on human rights and its significance for international relations by identifying threats and opportunities associated with the marginalization of the universalist account of human rights at both theoretical and practical levels. Finally, the authors conclude that the main threat is that the process may destroy the existing international arrangement without creating any alternative mechanism for defending individuals' rights. The only substitute for international mechanisms is the codification of human rights norms in domestic legal systems. However, since many countries in the world have not attempted to ensure upholding and protecting these rights in their own legal systems, this alternative may prove to be ineffective. However, the new world order may lead to a good opportunity for providing practical solutions to address the theoretical criticisms. The emerging international arrangement may provide new capacity for non-western cultural traditions such as Confucianism to play a role in the expansion of the notion of human rights and more obligation-based norms, in addition to more emphasis on recognizing and accepting differences in opinions in order to promote pluralism. 


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