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This edition offers an introduction to the theory and practice of human rights from the perspective of politics and cognate disciplines. It showcases the ‘state of the art’ of the study of human rights in various fields and disciplines and explores a variety of important topics in contemporary human rights politics and practice. This introduction provides the historical and conceptual background necessary for informed critical engagement with the ideas and arguments presented in the text. It first explains why human rights have emerged as a powerful and important moral and political discourse since the middle of the twentieth century, with particular emphasis on their modernity, their invention, and their revolutionary character. It then examines the politics of human rights, the practice of human rights, and human rights as an object of enquiry. It concludes with a brief overview of the aims, structure, and objectives of the text.

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This chapter discusses the normative and theoretical foundations of human rights. More specifically, it examines the theoretical basis for the normative ideas advanced by those who use the language of human rights for an ethical critique of international politics and policy. The chapter first traces the origins of the language of rights before discussing cultural relativism and imperialism, both of which challenge the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ claim to have universal application. It then considers the negative/positive distinction as a way of thinking about the differences between liberty and welfare rights. It also explores group rights, along with the philosophical and political history of the idea of human rights. Finally, it explains how the human rights agenda is deeply political, showing that it privileges a certain set of normative commitments that its proponents hope will become, in time, the ethical constitution of the international system.

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This chapter explores the theoretical and political history of human rights that emerges out of the struggles that have been waged by feminists and other non-elites. It first considers the bases for the moral legitimacy of human rights and challenges to those arguments before discussing three aspects of feminist approaches to human rights: their criticism of some aspects of the theory and practice of human rights, their rights claims, and their conceptual contributions to a theory of human rights. It then examines the ways in which feminists and other activists for marginalized groups have used human rights in their struggles and how such struggles have in turn shaped human rights theory. It also analyses theoretical and historical objections to the universality of human rights based on cultural relativism. Finally, it shows that women’s rights advocates want rights enjoyment and not merely entitlements.

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This chapter examines the democratic credentials of the European Union by asking whether it matches some key features common to many modern democratic systems: representation (whether legislation is adopted by representative assemblies); separation of powers; the executive’s democratic accountability; respect for fundamental rights; and whether competing political parties offer voters genuine choice. The chapter also clarifies some key concepts and terms such as bicameralism, democratic deficit, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Furthermore, it considers an alternative to representative democracy: the organizing of referenda to settle issues. Finally, it discusses the EU’s provisions for helping national parliaments scrutinize the participation of their government in EU institutions.

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This chapter explores the interrelationships between law, constitutions, and federalism. It first explains the importance of constitutions in shaping the basic structure of the state and the fundamental rights of citizens that they establish before discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular asking whether it is Western-centric. It then considers the ways in which states may attempt to realize justice in applying the law, with emphasis on the distinction between Islamic and Western practice. It also examines the role of constitutional courts and judicial review, legal adjudication of political problems, how the institution of federalism is used to contain the powers of the state and to manage diverse societies, and consociationalism as an alternative approach to handling social diversity. Finally, it analyses the increasing legalization of political life.

Chapter

This chapter examines the liberalist approach to the theory and practice of international politics. It begins with an overview of liberalism and liberal internationalism’s main characteristics, including how they overlap with, yet significantly depart from, the realist perspective. It then considers the major liberalist schools of thought, namely: commercial or economic liberalism, human rights liberalism, international organization or institutions liberalism, and democratic liberalism. The chapter explores how contemporary liberal internationalism is losing significant power and appeal because the major Western states of the world system are experiencing serious international and domestic difficulties. It closes by indicating that the Western liberal internationalist order will likely lose a sizable portion of its long standing international dominance, resulting in a more widely spread global security management arrangement among a larger number of major states.