Navigating Human Rights in IR Methodological Landscape (part 1 of 2)



MINDAVIEWS > MARGINALIA: Navigating human rights in IR methodological landscape (part 1 of 2)

Mansoor L. Limba on December 10, 2016

MAKATI CITY (MindaNews /10 December) – Encyclopedia Britannica simply defines human rights as “rights that belong to an individual as a consequence of being human.” For John Vincent, this right consists of the following five elements: “a right-holder (the subject of a right) has a claim to some substance (the object of a right), which he or she might assert, or demand, or enjoy, or enforce (exercising a right) against some individual or group (the bearer of the correlative duty), citing in support of his or her claim some particular ground (the justification of a right).” (Human Rights and International Relations, p. 8)

They are a set of principled ideas about the treatment to which all individuals are entitled by virtue of being human. Due to the fact that one either is or is not a human being, human rights are held equally by all. Equally, since one cannot cease to be human being, regardless of his or her ‘inhuman’ conduct or condition he or she is currently in, these rights are said to be inalienable. (J. Donnelly, “The Universal Declaration Model of Human Rights: A Liberal Defense,” p. 2)

Human rights in IR

In due course, these ideas have earned general recognition as international norms defining what was necessary for humans to flourish, both in terms of being protected from abuses, and provided with the elements necessary for a life in dignity. Since a problem often becomes the subject of international action only after a dramatic event crystallizes awareness, Jack Donnelly argues that the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials (1945-46) at which leading Nazis were prosecuted under the new charge of ‘crimes against humanity’ crystallizes the world awareness on human rights as an international issue worth contemplating for—an issue which was reckoned before as a domestic affair within the cocoon of ‘sovereignty’. (Donnelly, International Human Rights, pp. 4-5)

While the Covenant of the League of Nations made no mention of human rights, the Charter of the United Nations’ Preamble stipulates a resolve “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” and its first article incorporates “encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all” as among the organization’s principal raison d’êtres. The day after opening for signature the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly (GA). Following the adoption of the seminal and most authoritative statement of international human rights norms, human rights continued to be discussed at the UN though this momentum was initially brought to a halt by the Cold War.

During the Cold War human rights widely became an arena of superpower struggle. Besides, both superpowers manifested a blatant disrespect for human rights. Derailing of work on further elaborations of international human rights standards is also an instance of arbitrary impacts of the Cold War. A case in point is the almost two decades time gap between the adoption of the UDHR and the completion of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—covenants that were envisioned as a single treaty in 1948. Though achieving only limited or partial success, in 1970s human rights norms saw a leap forward from standard setting to monitoring their compliance. As norms continued to be developed, multilateral, bilateral, and transnational human rights activities steadily increased through the 1980s. Then, with the removal of the Iron Curtain, the 1990 decade was a witness to “a most gradual, but generally positive, change as shown by a region-by-region review.” (Ibid., p. 13) These developments in the context of national, international and transnational normative deepening and the maturing of human rights as an international issue have been considered an indication of “a qualitative transformation of the international politics of human rights.” (Ibid., p. 17)

In sum, most international human rights treaties agreed upon after 1945 regulate the domestic behavior of governments towards their own citizens. With the significant expansion of such regimes within the last fifty years state actors face growing formal and informal limits to the policy choices they have. Human rights norms have experienced a norms cascade in the last two decades and are part of the transformation of the international system as indicated by the following facts:

“In 1975, only 33 countries had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, equaling 23 per cent of the UN membership at that time (144). By July 2001, 147 states had ratified the treaty (equaling 76 per cent of the total UN membership of 189) and 97 the Optional Protocol accepting supervisory powers of Human Rights Committee. In addition, 157 states have ratified the Convention against Racial Discrimination, 145 the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 168 the Women’s Rights convention, 125 the Convention against Torture, and 191 the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” (Handbook of International Relations, p. 524)

Nevertheless, it is proper to stress that the import of the origins, acceptance and evolution of norms depends on their ability to affect actual behavior beyond mere rhetorical commitment. This compliance on human rights norms can be viewed as a spectrum including (1) the ratification of a human rights treaty, (2) the fulfillment of reporting and other requests by supervisory bodies, (3) the implementation of norms in domestic law, (4) and rule-consistent behavior on the domestic level. (A. Kent, China, the United Nations and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance, p. 236)

Alongside internationalization of human rights norms, there has emerged a growing moral consciousness among world public opinion of human rights issues and concerns. Along this line, state behavior is now more closely monitored with respect to the gulf between the declaratory commitments of governments to protect and promote human rights and their compliance with these standards.

In the succeeding sections the different theories on human rights from the methodological (ontological-epistemological) perspective are presented. These theories give different answers to the following question:

Why the theory of universal human rights and the everyday practice of human wrongs are heaven and earth apart? Are human rights abuses a product of the mere failure of governments to observe universal human rights principles both in letter and spirit? Or, perhaps, is it due to the fact that the very search for moral universals is itself a foundationally fallacious business?

Methodology in IR

As an institutionalized academic discipline, International Relations deals with two fundamental kinds of issues. One kind of issues is the substantive one that refers to the questions of facts. What are the contributory factors that led to the Iran-Iraq war? Who are responsible for the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001? Is the computer technology an agent or product of globalization? What are the political and economic motives behind the US/UK aggression in Iraq? These are examples of substantive questions. The other type of issues is the methodological one. It pertains to conceptual and philosophical questions that are involved in the way the research in the discipline is carried out. Examples of methodological issues include the following: is the national interest of the state constitutive or regulatory, exogenous or endogenous? Is anarchy really what the states make of it? How plausible is the claim of Robert Gilpin that one can adopt realism as a methodological theory while adopting another normative view as he does? (Gilpin, Global Political Economy: Understanding the International Economic Order, p. 15)

Though students of the discipline are usually engrossed with the first kind of issues, it cannot be denied that the second affects the way how we view the former. In other words, substantive questions, including the ones stated above, also exemplify conceptual issues: What is ‘war’? What are the things that can be considered ‘contributory factors’? What constitute a ‘terrorist attack’? What is ‘terrorism’? What is ‘globalization’? What is the difference between ‘agent’ and ‘product’ of globalization? What are ‘political and economic motives’? What comprises ‘aggression’?

As far as methodological issues are concerned, two aspects usually come to the fore, viz. ontology and epistemology. Ontology is that branch of the philosophy of social science, which concerns with the nature of the social world. It is interested with the following question: Is there an objective reality ‘out there’ or is it a subjective creation of people? The extreme objectivist stance is essentially ‘naturalist’: the social world of international relations is basically a thing, an object, out there. (‘Naturalist’ in the sense that the natural and the social worlds are assumed to be the same and as such, the same types of instruments can be utilized to study them.) On the other end of the spectrum is the extreme subjectivist standpoint that is purely idealist: the social world of international relations is basically an idea or concept that people share about how they should organize themselves and relate to each other politically; it is constituted by language, ideas and concepts. (R. Jackson and G. Sorensen, Introduction to International Relations, p. 243) Thus, on the ontological axis we have subjectivism and objectivism.

As another branch of the philosophy of social science, epistemology pertains to the relation of our knowledge to that world. In other words, it is the study of how we can claim to know something: “how to know that we know what we know.” (O. Wæver, The Future of International Relations: Masters in the Making?, p. 16)

At one end of the continuum is the view of scientifically explaining the world. It is a matter of building a valid social science on a foundation of verifiable empirical propositions. In this light, IR theories are explanatory and foundational, i.e. the social world is external to the theory and the theory is based on a common and universally accepted platform. Besides, all truth claims can be judged true or false. The concern of the theory is to uncover regularities in human behavior and thereby explain the social world in much the same way a natural scientific theory does explain the physical world.

At the other end of the continuum is the idea of understanding the world. It concerns comprehension and interpretation of the substantive topic under consideration. Accordingly, historical, legal or moral problems of world politics cannot be translated into the terms of science without misunderstanding them. (Jackson and Sorensen, ibid.)

In this vein, IR theories are constitutive/reflective and anti-foundational, i.e. the theory actually helps construct the world and there is no universally recognized common denominator in which the theory can stand. The very concepts used to analyze the world help to make that world what it is. In addition, truth claims cannot be judged as such since there are never neutral grounds for so doing; each theory instead will define what counts as the facts and so there will be no neutral position available to determine between rival claims. Unlike the foundationalists who believe in the existence of meta-theoretical grounds for selecting between truth claims, the anti-foundationalists think that there are no such positions available, and that believing so is itself simply a reflection of an adherence to a particular view of epistemology. Hence, on the epistemological axis there are two types of classification, viz. foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. Corollary to this, IR theories are classified either as explanatory or constitutive/reflectivist.

Therefore, the social world or any social item (object/subject) such as international relations, world politics, or human rights occupies one of the following ontological-epistemological ‘box’: ontological subjectivism–epistemological foundationalism, ontological subjectivism- epistemological anti-foundationalism, ontological objectivism-epistemological foundationalism, and ontological objectivism-epistemological anti-foundationalism.

(Part 1 of 2)


[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mansoor L. Limba, PhD in International Relations, is a writer, educator, blogger, chess trainer, and translator (from Persian into English and Filipino) with tens of written and translation works to his credit on such subjects as international politics, history, political philosophy, intra-faith and interfaith relations, cultural heritage, Islamic finance, jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (‘ilm al-kalam), Qur’anic sciences and exegesis (tafsir), hadith, ethics, and mysticism. He can be reached at, or and]

(Visited 25 times, 1 visits today)
Categories: Current Events, International Relations | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Proudly powered by WordPress Theme: Adventure Journal by Contexture International.