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  • Cited by 6
  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: August 2009

4 - Human Rights as an Ethics of Power


From the time of their association with natural rights in eighteenth-century America and France to their encoding by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the idea and practice of human rights have possessed constitutively ambiguous and paradoxical – if not contradictory – political features. On the one hand, they would constrain the actions of institutional political actors within a universal ethical framework that coincides with international law. In this vein, they presumptively operate outside of both domestic and international politics. On the other hand, the actualization of human rights amounts to a comprehensive moral charge for social change, which requires political action by individuals and institutions. This suggests that human rights can be powerful and legitimate but only when they are enforced by an invisible hand – a political deux ex machina. In other words, the practical integrity of human rights depends on their being simultaneously political and non-political, a sign of immutable morality and a practical tool of particular political actors.

This constitutive political ambiguity of human rights has belonged to the discourse of human rights since its origins, but only recently has “human rights” factored seriously in the justification of political action by powerful states. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the emergence of the European Union as a political actor, and the consolidation of the global hegemony of the United States – the discourse of human rights has become dramatically more significant in the language of international relations and the politics of states.

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