In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Rights

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Organizational and Institutional Resources
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • History
  • Governance and Law
  • Theory
  • Conflict and Conciliation
  • Humanitarian Intervention
  • Global Economic Justice
  • New Directions

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International Relations Human Rights
Cathal Nolan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0017


“Human rights” is a philosophically and historically powerful idea that all human beings share fundamental rights. These are said to emanate not from any social contract specific to a single political community, or from gracious or forced concession from an absolute sovereign or state, but from the essence of an individual’s humanity. It is an original conceit steeped in conceptions about natural law, later supplemented by social contract theory, and most recently by basic needs or natural justice arguments. Because of its claimed universalism, which is not always conceded by critics of the concept, “human rights” is an idea inherently controversial in a world of sovereign states. It has also come under attack by “postmodernist” and other cultural relativist critiques. Nevertheless, it has proven historically and surprisingly subversive of traditional cultural practices and political systems, be they feudal, authoritarian, totalitarian, or even democratic. The oldest stream of international conceptions of human rights is essentially liberal. This tradition stresses civil and political liberties of individuals, with rights to freedom held against the state, not by it on behalf of the nation or some other collective identity. After World War I, the debate over rights expanded to include positive social and economic rights (and minority rights, primarily in Eastern and Central Europe). This took place not in a universal fashion, but in organizations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), and only to a much lesser extent intermittently within the League of Nations. Issues of racial equality were also broached by Japan and China, but were initially rebuffed at the Paris Peace Conference, and again rebushed later within the league. The real breakthrough in internationalizing human rights came in 1944–1945 at the founding conferences of the United Nations at Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco, which led to issuance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and subsequently to two International Covenants, one on Civil and Political Rights and the other on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. From 1948, there followed four decades of furious codification and legal expansion, processes reflected in predominantly philosophical and legal literature as late as the 1980s, shifting to arguments about implementation and state obligation after that. By 2000 there was broad rhetorical and legal acceptance of human rights obligations by states, but enormous differences over real world implementation and—barriers are raised, not formed—new cultural and sovereign barriers against universal claims. Simultaneously, fresh demands on states tend now to be framed as expansive claims to essential rights, often newly identified from development, to environment, to the genome. These trends are all reflected in the literature, which is again filled with legal, philosophical, and even theological theory and debate. At the same time, a large parallel literature, often by practitioners, focuses on micro-emphasis on local or issue implementation.

General Overviews

Overviews of human rights tend to be liberal-internationalist in focus, whereas critiques of the liberal position tend to be more issue or country specific. The most clearly classical liberal overview is Henkin 1990, although the author also comments on US foreign policy. Vincent 1987 is somewhat dated, but highly representative of late–Cold War books by Western authors. Lauren 2003 presents a more recent and amended liberalism, which incorporates an expanded list of social and economic rights that most Western liberal thinkers have accepted into the pantheon of rights. It is, however, perhaps overly morally and historically ambitious in its optimism about present and future trends in international political development and general human welfare. Singer 2004 is a similarly morally ambitious work by a major, and controversial, public philosopher. Most morally soaring and difficult of all, but also quite subtle and original, is Wilson and Brown 2008. All of these works might be usefully contrasted with standard realist critiques of humanitarian impulses in international governance and democratic foreign policy.

  • Henkin, Louis. The Age of Rights. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

    Classical liberal interpretation of human rights, rooted in international law and diplomatic history. Heavy American focus on domestic and foreign policy issues. Eloquently written by a senior scholar.

  • Lauren, Paul Gordon. The Evolution of International Human Rights:Visions Seen. 2d ed. Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

    History of the idea of human rights. Cites “visions” of the future to suggest new era will replace the old one of pervasive unjust authority, racism, sexism, child abuse, slavery, and class injustice. Sometimes conflates domestic systems with critique of colonial empires, state systems. Asserts human rights ideal is transcending sovereignty as universal global norm. Elegant, but in places millennarian and eschatological.

  • Singer, Peter. One World: The Ethics of Globalization. 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    Notable philosopher and ethicist argues for global rather than national- or state-based ethics. Globalization not defined primarily in economic terms, but as a new world ethic and perspective. In places, mostly a critique of US foreign policy as narrowly nationalist and unilateralist, but disguised as a general moral treatise on international relations.

  • Vincent, R. J. Human Rights and International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    Published near the end of Cold War, the author employs the then-commonplace division of human rights concerns into East-West and North-South baskets, with concentration on human rights as an agenda pressed by Western states in relations with Soviet bloc and third world. Notable for early departure from classical liberal emphasis on civil and political rights in favor of an approach oriented toward basic needs or subsistence rights.

  • Wilson, Richard Ashby, and Richard D. Brown, eds. Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy through Narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Role of humanitarian sentiments in motivating and mobilizing compassion into reform through narratives of suffering. Humanitarianism in civil society arises from multiple sources: social and cultural movements, secular and religious ideas, legal and political traditions and institutions. Analyzes emotional basis of compassion and solidarity; power of certain visual and literary narratives to make pity at once popular and political.

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