Human rights and democracy in a global context: decoupling and recoupling

Ethics and Global Politics 4 (1):19-50 (2011)
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Human rights and democracy have been regarded as a mutually reinforcing couple by many political theorists to date. The internationalisation of human rights post-1945 is often said to have severed those links, however. Accounting for the legitimacy of international human rights requires exploring how human rights and democracy, once they have been decoupled or disconnected, can be recoupled or reunited across governance levels and maybe even at the same governance level albeit beyond the state. The article does so in three steps. The first prong of the argument is dedicated to presenting the moral-political nature of human rights and their relationship to political equality and, hence, their inherent legal nature from a democratic theory perspective. The second section of the article then draws some implications for the domestic or international levels of legal recognition and specification of human rights by reference to their legitimation within the domestic democratic community. It explains the mutual relationship between human rights and citizens’ rights and where international human rights draw their democratic legitimacy from. In the third and final section, the author discusses potential changes in the nature and legitimacy of international human rights once political structures beyond the state become more democratic, and human rights and democracy are being recoupled again at various levels of governance. The European Union being one of the most advanced examples of post-national political integration, recent developments in the regime of human rights protection within the EU are discussed in this new light. In a final step, the transposition to the global level of the argument developed in the European case is assessed and the author flags issues for further research on what democratic theorists should hope for in the new global order.Keywords: democracy; human rights; legitimacy; citizens’ rights; Maus; right to have rights; Arendt; legal rights; international law; EU; global institutions; Habermas; Lafont



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