The Conceptual Foundations of International Politics: Commentary and Critique of the Columbia University lecture series at Lecture Eight: Mary Robinson.

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Human Rights and Institutions—-Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson, the ex-President of Ireland, sets herself the task in this lecture of placing human rights in the political coordinate system provided by Lisa Anderson in her previous lectures:

“Where do Human Rights fit on the map of political theory: Realism, Liberalism, Idealism and Constructivism. Well, Human Rights is certainly not a tenet of Realism. For them, the world is dominated and determined by material forces. Liberalism emphasises the advantages of Human Rights in International cooperation. But Human Rights is most often placed in the constructivist camp. Constructivists assert that world peace and stability will only arise from a consensus around shared norms and values. Human Rights are pointed to as proof of the existence of the emergence of a world culture.”

The placing of Idealism in the above quote is ambiguous. Is it meant as a new category, since it was not mentioned by Andersson in her earlier lectures, or is it meant as a kind of qualification of the Constructivist position?Constructivism has been historically discussed in many contexts: it has been asserted as a learning theory in which information is “constructed”: it has also been asserted as an educational theory in which the focus is taken away from the teacher and placed on the constructing mind of the pupil: lastly it has also been claimed to be a literary theory in which interpretations of a text are “constructed”. Given the fact that there is no further mention of this “new category” of “Idealism” as a new coordinate on the political map we assume that what Robinson may be referring to is none of the above forms of constructivism but rather the new research by Christine Korsgaard on Ethical Constructivism in relation to Kant’s moral philosophy which has often been characterised as idealistic in spite of the fact that there are many realist claims contained in his moral theory. The following quote is taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“For instance, Christine Korsgaard characterizes Kantian constructivism as a form of “procedural realism” – the view that “there are answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them”; and she contrasts procedural realism with “substantive realism” – the view that
there are correct procedures for answering moral questions because there are moral truths or facts, which exist independently of those procedures, and which those procedures track. (Korsgaard 1996a: 36–37, see also Korsgaard 1983: 183)”

We have not encountered very much of Kant’s thinking so far in this lecture series and we must examine the extent to which this lecture will bring Kant’s ethical and political Philosophy into this debate. The above makes the interesting point which we have referred to earlier, namely that ethical and political thinking is “objective”. Perusing the above account we would question the statement that it is moral facts which lay at the foundation of the so called correct procedures for answering moral questions but we would agree to the term “moral truths”. The only qualification we would make to this claim is that these moral truths must be inserted in an ought system of concepts matrix in which the major premise is always a true ought statement

In the above quote by Mary Robinson there is reference to the “emergence of a world culture” which fits neatly into the Kantian ethical framework of a kingdom of ends which is distinctly cosmopolitan. There is, however, in Robinson no acknowledgment that the concept of Human individual rights probably were grounded and founded in Kant’s moral and political writings. On her account Human Rights are a relatively recent phenomenon, which can be dated back to the post second world war era. There is no recognition of the fact that the institution of the UN was actually suggested in the 1790’s as a response to the extreme nationalistic behaviour of the states of his time. Put this together with the Kantian suggestion of a world cosmopolitan culture which in its turn is a consequence of his law-based moral theory and we can then defend the claim above that “individual human rights were grounded and founded upon Kants moral and political writings”. Some commentators have incorrectly interpreted these writings as suggesting a world government but this was specifically ruled out by Kant who claimed that such a government would eventually become a tyranny. Kant’s theories have often been embraced by humanistic liberals wishing to champion the dignity of man. Robinson refers to such a world creating value in the quote below:

“The world came together out of respect for the dignity of each human being. All human beings are born free and dignified with rights. Human Rights are also the foundation stone for national and international peace.”

The dignity of each human being is, as we will recall, a central concern of Kant’s moral theory and this idea is also involved in Kant’s almost Aristotelian account of the telos of moral theory which is to treat individual men as ends in themselves in the cause of the “construction” of the kingdom of ends. One of Kant’s essays in political philosophy is entitled “Perpetual Peace” and it too links this view of human nature with his moral and political theories whilst simultaneously arguing that Peace is the necessary condition for achieving the environment necessary to establish the free exercise of responsibilities in a kingdom of ends.

Robinson continues to outline her position in the following way:

“One position maintains that a world without human rights is a world in which two world wars could occur, a holocaust, the dropping of two atomic bombs and a cold war. It was after such a failure that the liberal and constructivist theories became more important.”

She is referring here to what Hannah Arendt in her work “The Origins of Totalitarianism” described as “the terrible events of this terrible century” but no mention is made of the specific impact of realist political thinking which dominated international relations from the time of the Treaty of Westphalia. The arena of International Relations where combatants came to fight and survive was a realist “construction”. It was a Hobbesian state of nature where all were at war with all. Aristotelian Philosophy had lost its influence and standing in the world, was temporarily restored during the Enlightenment only to fade away again in the face of the onslaught of realism in the guise of science on its combat mission against Religion. Liberalism has taken many forms over the centuries. The closer we move to our own time the more the humanistic liberal and constructivist positions seem to merge, still beleaguered, however, by the realists on their various combat missions(terrorism is the latest object of their aggression) A certain commitment to if not Cosmopolitanism, internationalism emerged from the terror of the last century only to be submerged in the cold waters of the cold war. Two Hobbesian superpowers emerge with arsenals of weapons of mass destruction and the world became polarised and terrorised as it had never been before. Even human rights became polarised with the East bloc claiming that economic/social and cultural rights were more important to them than the Western ideals of civil and political rights. Robinson has this to say on the issue:

“The Eastern bloc countries claimed that they would first have to build their economies and ensure health and education before they could participate in Western civil and political rights. This split in opinion and ideology split human rights right down the middle.”

After having read Henry Kissinger’s work on “Diplomacy” one can just imagine the negotiations between the blocs over this issue especially after Kissinger insisted that Human Rights should be an essential element of every discussion between the two blocs. One can imagine Kissinger negotiating with the Soviet Union over its treatment of political dissidents in the Gulags. On Kissinger’s mind was probably the fact that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime with the blood of millions of its own citizens on its hands. One can also imagine the Soviet union harassing the USA with its record with respect to slavery. Robinson refers to this issue below:

“There is a reason why the US resisted the idea that economic, social and cultural rights were rights which stemmed perhaps from the reluctance of the US Constitution to give slaves economic social and civil rights.”

Robinson introduces this discussion to prove that in the halls of power human rights were the subject of tough negotiations in spite of the fact that outside the halls of power(in the ivory towers of the Universities?)human rights are largely regarded as “soft power”.

It would not, for example, be unusual to hear from the realists in the world of corporations and business that:

“For the realists, international law without the means to reinforce it does not matter on the world stage. In fact reliance upon international law is dangerous and naive in an anarchaic international system of states. For them a states uttermost priority is survival.”

Robinson then asks how we should respond to this state of affairs but before we quote these responses let us discuss that the Neo-Kantian Constructivist believes that the ICJ is a rational organisation whose task it is to both inspire the world with international ideas of justice and enforce these ideas in contexts of due process and sound juridicial judgments. The constructivists, that is believe in the Aristotelian definition of humans as rational animals capable of discourse and because of this fact their actions and thought far transcend the need for survival or the Hobbesian need for commodious living. Constructivists, that is, believe more in the Kantian ethical and religious summum bonum of a good life for human beings.

Robinson then provides a number of defences for the value of International law:

“Almost all nations observe almost all the principles of International Law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time. This is the practical reality. Many of the core concepts of International relations such as sovereignty, non intervention, immunity, were developed through inter state relations and then codified into International Law. International law is the normative system of the world and the standard currency of International Relations. Much of the talk of leaders today about democracy building would be impossible without international law.”

All of the above are, of course practical implications of the Kantian Cosmopolitan ideas of freedom and responsibility(duty). The above points are also an argument for the actual existence of International law and she further claims in the same spirit that a multiplicity of actors have created with their combined and integrated actions a situation in which Human Rights are as she puts it:

“the minimum condition that should be met in the process of globalisation”

However, such a multiplicity of actors, argues Robinson, creates uncertainty concerning who exactly carries the ultimate responsibility for International Law. This is a strange objection because if one is a Neo-Kantian institutions such as International courts of justice and the United Nations are Principle-based institutions. Robinson continues with a quote of Kofi Annan on the shortcomings of International Law which, he argues has :

“Too often it is applied selectively and enforced arbitrarily.”

However, Robinson argues, International Law is a young still maturing system. She notes also what everyone easily forgets, namely that at the millennium shift
273 new treaty signings took place in relation to many different spheres of interest. That is the end goal of a more secure and peaceful world appears to have somewhat closer to fulfilment. Robinson points that the war on terrorism has been a negative factor in the arena of respect for human rights. She rightly criticises the practice of torturing prisoners. Involved in this war is the opening up of ideological and religious differences between large groups of people.

She concludes:

“What we are witnessing is a huge demonstration of soft power”