International justice, human rights and neutrality

Res Publica 10 (2):153-174 (2004)
A number of theorists have tried to resolve the tension between a western-oriented liberal scheme of human rights and an account that accommodates different political systems and constitutional ideals than the liberal one. One important way the tension has been addressed is through a “neutral” or tolerant, notion of human rights, as present in the work of Rawls, Scanlon and Buchanan. In this paper I argue that neutrality cannot by itself explain the difference between rights considered appropriate for liberal states and rights considered to be human rights proper. The central arguments used by neutralist theorists presuppose, rather than justify, this differential treatment. Instead, that difference can be understood only by reference to the purpose of human rights as distinct from the constitutional rights of a liberal state. This requires us to reassess the point and purpose of a theory of international justice, in contrast to justice for a domestic and politically separate society. In the case of a theorist like Rawls, human rights represent guides to the foreign policy of a liberal state, rather than to principles by which all states are expected to abide. That is because of Rawls’ acceptance that no common, authoritative, third-party, institutions capable of imposing duties on all agents uniformly exist or can exist. This also makes his theory inherently conservative about human rights, given that they are simply to act as a guide to which states can be treated as legitimate when it comes to liberal foreign policy: those that possess institutions that can be said to represent a peoples, rather than being imposed through violence. This standard is lower than the ideal set of rights extended to all in a liberal society.
Keywords cosmopolitan neutrality  human rights  international justice  international relations  Rawls
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DOI 10.1023/B:RESP.0000034636.26696.18
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