Globalization and the construction of universal human rights.

Author:Leonard, Eric K.
Position:The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era - Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalization - Book review

The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era by Micheline R. Ishay. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalization edited by Mahmood Monshipouri, Neil Englehart, Andrew J. Nathan and Kavita Philip. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2003.


Every human rights scholar and activist must eventually engage the question of whether a set of universal human rights exists. For international relations scholars, this is an interesting debate, whether one is immersed in human rights research or not. The reason for the interest in the question is its focus on notions of authority and rule in the international system. If one accepts that a universal understanding of human rights exists, then one accepts that the relevant actors of the international community agree to uphold a common norm or set of norms despite the obvious differences in culture and history. In essence, an investigation into universal human rights is an investigation into the normative underpinnings of our global society and the actors that construct the rules for this society. This question becomes even more interesting given the intensification of the globalization process and the increased interdependence of traditional state actors, along with the increased relevance of non-actors.

The two texts under review for this essay attempt to address the question of whether universal human rights exist in an age of globalization. In fact, the common link between these two texts is their quest for a set of definable universal human rights, both historically and in contemporary times. In the end, neither text ascertains a definitive list of universal rights (although Ishay has a clear idea of what that list should look like); however, they both employ fruitful methodologies for understanding the notion of universality and its impact on the study of human rights in a globalized society. Thus, one of the real benefits of these texts is their ability to further research, in an empirical manner, around an age-old debate concerning the question of "which rights and for whom?" Through a critical examination of these texts, this review essay will delve into the debate surrounding universal human rights and its subsequent consequences for understanding rule and authority--in an ontologically enlightened manner.

Historical Account

For Micheline R. Ishay's The History of Human Rights, the answer to this question resides in a detailed examination of the evolution of human rights as an idea. Her text travels on a detailed journey in which she examines the ideational component of human rights through different historical epochs in an attempt to find the commonality amongst several competing traditions. By engaging in such a detailed historical examination, Ishay also attempts to clarify many of the misconceptions embodied in the human rights literature. These include an examination of the origin of human rights, the Euro-centric nature of human rights, the influence of socialist thought, the relation between cultural and universal rights, the question of whether progress is possible, and the affect globalization has on the pursuit of human rights.

In her attempt to interact with all of these controversies, Ishay begins her historical account by guiding the reader through the early ethical understandings of human existence in an attempt to comprehend the origins of universal human rights. Ishay then leads the reader through a discussion of the liberal enlightenment period and then the subsequent socialist tendencies of the industrial age. Ultimately, she brings us to the 20th and 21st centuries and a discussion of the institutionalization of universal rights and the impact that the globalization process has on human rights endeavors. Throughout this wonderfully eloquent examination of cumulative history, Ishay is always probing for a set of rights that carries over from era to era. For it is within this historically relevant set of universals that the elusive quest for a definitive understanding of universal human rights culminates, thus forming a more inclusive society. As this essay will show, her quest for a definable set of universal rights ultimately hinges on an acceptance of difference with an understanding and desire for universals. The historical interplay amongst actors creates human rights and thus, the possibility of a universally accepted set of rights.

Constructed Reality

For Mahmood Monshipouri, Neil Englehart, Andrew J. Nathan, and Kavita Philip's Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalization, the quest focuses more on contemporary as opposed to historical political constructs, although all of the authors tend to weave a historical understanding of rights into their analyses. In general, the authors of this text seek to test the notion of commonality in a contemporary globalized world in which "competing universals" (x) make it difficult to decipher the true affect of globalization on the quest for universal human rights. Unlike Ishay's acceptance that human rights are in fact universal, the authors of Constructing Human Rights view universalism as the only universal (xi). Concerning a notion of universal human rights, Monshipouri et al. prefer to discuss competing or multiple universals that in an age of globalization clash, resulting in either a homogenization process or localized rejection. In short, the authors of this text intend to examine the position of "universal" human rights in a globalized world and examine the social dialogue that creates these rights, although nothing about them appears truly universal.

Common Thread

Surprisingly, the underlying purpose of both the Monshipouri et al. and Ishay texts is very similar, despite the seemingly fundamental disagreement surrounding the existence of universal human rights. In their quest for understanding the current state of human rights, neither Ishay nor the authors of Constructing Human Rights appear ready to accept that human rights are natural, metaphysical, or theologically based. They do accept that human rights are dynamic, historically contingent, and socially constructed. This is not to say that their desire for certain rights remains historically contingent. Ishay in particular progresses towards a reluctant acceptance of the socially constructed nature of rights, but always with a wishful eye towards a certain universal definition or listing of human rights that appears to correlate with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other comprehensive codified notions of human rights. The authors of Constructing Human Rights remain more accepting of the outcomes of social constructivism, although a consensus does not necessarily emerge as to what the outcome will look like. Thus, for both texts, the listing of rights is always difficult, but the method of understanding is very clear. The purpose of this review essay is to first, focus on the common thread that binds these two texts together (a social constructivist ontology) and then examine the impact of such an ontology on the debate over universal human rights in a globalized world.

A Focus on Ontology

Because these texts appear sympathetic, in Ishay's case, and overtly accepting, in Monshipouri et al., to a social constructivist ontology, this essay must begin with two critical questions: 1) What is social constructivism? 2) How is it relevant to these two texts, and more importantly, the general debate concerning the existence of universal human rights? Let us begin with the definitional problems surrounding social constructivism. Once a definition is in place, this essay can move to a discussion of ontological understandings of universal rights. It is here, as stated above, that this essay will focus in its attempt to ascertain an understanding of human rights in a globalized world.

Defining Social Constructivism

In attempting to define social constructivism, one can be mired down in a literature of competing perspectives and theoretical debates. (1) For the sake of simplicity, this essay describes social constructivism in broadly accepted terms. The defining characteristic of social constructivism is that the world exists in its current form because we, agents in the world, have made it that way. However, this process is not causally unidirectional. Yes, agents do make the world, but conversely, social relations also make agents. The complexity of this perspective lies in the fact that social constructivism is a co-constitutive ontology in which agents and structures create each other. Within this ontology, neither agent nor structure is privileged and neither is indispensable. Therefore, the world around us exists as a result of our interaction with it.

Because of this foundational premise, it is clear that when viewing the world from a socially constructed ontology no concept, term...

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