What is the functional need/specific benefit of global human rights governance?

The actors, mechanisms, and processes of contemporary global human rights governance have their antecedents in a desire to prevent massive violence and warfare. However, the remit has rapidly evolved to encompass a range of global policy challenges, from universal health provision to sustainable development. Human rights provides one normative bedrock upon which to anchor a conception of governance in the service of the global common good. Notwithstanding debate over their meaning and conceptual parameters, there is widespread acceptance that human rights norms are substantially important, reflecting pragmatic, deeply-held shared concerns. Human rights also provide basic operational norms (deliberation, participation, accountability, and so on) which may inform global governance activities across the full gamut of issue-areas which impact upon human well-being.

Where do we turn to find this normative running code? The global human rights regime is codified in a dense array of treaties, institutions, networks and standards. If Ignatieff’s (1997: 8) claim that “we are scarcely aware of the extent to which our moral imagination has been transformed…above all in a shared human rights culture” strikes some as exaggerated, it is nevertheless hard to deny the extraordinary expansion and increased intrusiveness of global human rights norms in recent decades, especially in the legitimation of concern for the welfare of individuals and state behaviour regarding domestic human rights practices. We might add two further trends: first, an increased pluralism in norm entrepreneurs participating in diverse forums within an increasingly globalised governance system; and second, growing acceptability of norms of enforcement (broadly defined), as governance actors experiment with a multiplying array of direct and indirect compliance mechanisms focused on closing the “compliance gap” between standards and practice.

At the most general level, following the solidarist tradition of the English School, human rights protection and promotion serves to benefit all in the international society of states, in so far as the future security of the community is dependent upon foundational values of justice (Vincent 1985). However, this functional utopian vision is highly contested. For much of the Cold War, human rights were consigned to the margins by ideological division, the dominance of sovereign states within multilateral fora, and limited opportunities for institutionalized cooperation. As a consequence, the UN human rights regime has historically been limited by the veto power of member states, restrictive treaty mandates, limited financial and administrative resources, and few non-governmental partners at bilateral, regional, and transnational levels.

A transformed ecology defines contemporary human rights governance. Propelled by the liberal internationalism of the 1990s and an operational shift towards implementation, architectural innovation has resulted in heightened scrutiny of states’ human rights practices, ambitious and open-ended treaty mandates, the proliferation of dedicated institutional mechanisms at the multilateral, regional and local level, and enhanced access to UN procedures by non-state actors. The solidarist vision is perhaps most visible in the movement towards politically legitimating humanitarian intervention based on collective action – including the use of force – as embodied in the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), and associated efforts to redefine threats to international peace and security that have pushed human rights compliance onto the agenda of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

R2P has been extensively analyzed elsewhere, not least in Gridlock (Hale et al. 2013). Suffice to say that if the UNSC no longer rejects responsibility for situations of gross human rights violations, resistance on the part of member states to act according to this emerging protection norm is the dominant trend. Coercive enforcement ostensibly in the name of human rights has been marred by selectivity (e.g. Libya), geopolitical calculation (e.g. South Ossetia), and failure to actually protect civilian lives (e.g. Kosovo). The sclerotic dysfunctionality of the UNSC is emblematic of the worst symptoms of multilateral gridlock, leading some observers to conclude that human rights governance is “in crisis” (Hopgood 2013). At root, this failure speaks to governmental resistance to the idea that human rights violations constitute a threat to international peace and security. Despite progress in advancing conceptions of human security, realpolitik frequently overrides cooperation. Proposals for reform of the UNSC are in deep freeze and no UN standing military capability has ever been created.

However, to pass judgement on global human rights governance based on intergovernmental (in)activity within multilateral forum would be misguided. Indeed, we even might say it risks missing the point. Analytically, it denies a full appreciation of longstanding efforts by diverse public and private actors to respond to the transboundary challenge of human rights violations, frequently committed by states. Second, without denying Rennger’s (2011: 1177) observation that “in order to [advance human rights] we have to give states and other agents more power, not less,” it is important to be clear on the (potential) radical intent of the human rights project. As Reus-Smit (2011) argues, the fundamental normative justification for human rights is their role as “power mediators”; seeking to empower the politically disadvantaged, irrespective of territorial boundaries. This inherently ideological and politically contested regulatory terrain raises an important challenge to the (often implicit) functionalist collaborationist narrative which informs much global governance scholarship and practice.


Hale, T., D. Held and K. Young, Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When we Need it Most (London: Polity Press, 2013).

Hopgood, S., The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

Ignatieff, M., The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (New York: Metropolitan, 1997).

Rennger, Nicholas, ‘The world turned upside down? Human Rights and International Relations’, International Affairs, vol. 87, no. 5 (2011).

Reus-Smit, Christian, ‘Human rights in a global ecumene’, International Affairs, vol. 87, no. 5 (2011).

Vincent, J. Human Rights and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Extract of memo prepared for workshop on “Beyond Gridlock”, Durham University, 7-8 July 2015

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