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Human rights in the age of globalisation: some thoughts

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Abstract:

The rise of ‘new humanitarianism’ in the mid-1990s, symbolised by the endowment of universal jurisdiction to new global justice institutions – the establishment of UN war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia in 1993 and for Rwanda in 1994, the conviction of Dusko Tadic for crimes against humanity by an international tribunal (the first successful prosecution for crimes against humanity since the Nuremberg trials), the trial of Milosevic for genocide, and finally, the establishment of the International Criminal Court in July 2002 – resurrected interest in the Kantian discourse on cosmopolitan justice and world citizenship. Proponents of cosmopolitan law challenged the view that state sovereignty was inviolable and exalted the emergence of a ‘universal constitutional order’ which would protect basic standards and moral values globally, regardless of culture, through intergovernmental apparatus like international courts. This approach marked an abrupt end to the ‘universal human rights versus cultural relativism’ debate that had marked representation, cultural difference and identity politics in the global political arena in the early 1990s. Universalism and relativism ceased to be perceived as mutually exclusive but rather as reciprocally implicated. However, no matter how intellectually unengaging the old relativist vision of a ‘clash of cultures’ or the polarities of tradition versus modernity, or western versus non-western may seem, in the aftermath of September 11 and what Samuel Huntingdon describes as a ‘clash of civilisations’, it is essential to revisit the clich├ęd debate to comprehend the problems in translating a global rights language to the local level, that is, how officials use the human rights discourse and how people understand these rights in their everyday lives.

The debate over the universality of human rights and the challenge of cultural relativism has divided academics, legal practitioners, feminist organizations and those who work in the field of moral and social justice more generally. The modern notion of universal ‘human rights’ has a genealogy going back to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (26 August 1789) and it is culturally embedded in the principles of the French Revolution. This notion, inextricably interwoven into the paradoxes of Enlightenment humanism, based the entire question of what it meant to be ‘human’, on a set of social and cultural criteria that were defined in a largely European context.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2007

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  • World Constitutionalism
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