It is often said that in the years after the Second World War the world witnessed a ‘human rights revolution’. Documents such as the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed the universal and binding character of certain rights, and called on all nations to observe and protect them. This document was followed in due course by similar declarations from the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States and the Organization of African Unity (predecessor of the African Union), and the United Nations itself has further refined its list of human rights in a series of Covenants and Conventions. Most countries of the world have signed up to such agreements, and that apparently wide agreement is important. Whereas each of us will likely have various rights as citizens of particular countries, human rights are intended to pick out goods or interests which we can safely assume are important to everyone, in whatever kind of society or political system they happen to live. As James Griffin puts it, when we set out a list of human rights we focus on ‘what is at the center of a valuable human life and so requires special protection’ (Griffin 1986: 64). So an account of human rights concentrates on setting out a kind of ‘moral minimum’, of which no one should be deprived, regardless of where they live. To specify something as a human right is to accord considerable normative force to it, so that respect for someone’s human rights will usually – though not necessarily always – take precedence over other moral considerations. It will also, standardly, involve a claim that someone – or perhaps everyone – has a duty to respect and if necessary protect that right (see e.g. Nickel 2005, Griffin 2008).
From the point of view of international politics, this human rights ‘revolution’ has two elements: it both limits the autonomy of states by imposing core standards on them, and simultaneously affirms their status as the major units of legitimacy and power in world politics. Let us take each in turn. First, the human rights revolution appears to have brought along with it a significant redefinition of the idea of national sovereignty (Reus-Smith 2001). By signing up to human rights treaties, the various countries of the world are (at least in theory) agreeing to fall in line with a set of minimal standards which limit how they can legitimately treat their citizens. Those standards are not then easily ignored; as Jeremy Waldron has put it, ‘there is now scarcely a nation on earth which is not sensitive to or embarrassed by the charge that it is guilty of rights-violations’ (Waldron 1987: 155). As a result, when national leaders visit each other – and especially when leaders of liberal democracies visit their counterparts in certain non-democratic countries such as China or Saudi Arabia – the media tend to wait eagerly for the moment when the former begin to lecture the latter, politely or otherwise, about ‘the human rights issue’. Countries which do not protect human rights are prone to being labelled ‘failed states’, and if so, the consequences may extend well beyond simple criticism. The extreme neglect or abuse of human rights is sometimes thought to legitimise external intervention by other states (see e.g. Buchanan 2010). This is the role that John Rawls wants human rights to play, of course: the protection of human rights determines which societies we are, and are not, obliged to tolerate. To say that a society does not protect human rights is to say, quite simply, that it has no right against external intervention (Rawls 1999: 79–81).