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A critique of social approaches to human rights.


Concepts and ideas of natural and human rights can be seen as playing a highly ambivalent socio-historical role in terms of challenging or sustaining particular forms of power. In an earlier paper, I examined liberal and Marxist approaches to human rights.(1) This paper will extend that analysis by critically examining what may be termed a social democratic approach to human rights and the extent to which it challenges or sustains economic and state power. This analysis is of particular importance, as advocates of such an approach would claim to transcend the limits of liberal and Marxist traditions in recognizing that both markets and states can threaten human rights. Indeed, in terms of the dominant western debate on human rights, some recent social democratic theorists have set an apparently radical agenda for reappraising human rights on a world scale.

This thesis adopts a social constructionist perspective, in that it begins with the proposition that ideas and practices concerning human rights are created by people in particular historical, social, and economic circumstances. Such an approach stands in stark contrast to the long established tradition in western political thought that seeks to ground the concept of natural or human rights in timeless and abstract universals such as natural law. A second assumption central to this paper is that--because power and power relations are a key aspect of, and embedded in, social relations--ideas and practices with respect to human rights can only be understood once their relation to particular forms and dimensions of power is fully grasped. The understanding of power employed here broadly follows that of Lukes,(2) in that power is seen to be exercised both consciously, by individual and collective social actors, and structurally through the patterning of social systems.(3)

To talk of a social democratic approach to human rights presupposes a link to those political traditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such traditions accept that gross inequalities generated by a capitalist market economy should be curbed, and could be curbed through the intervention of a liberal democratic state. Such an approach is most clearly associated with the reformist socialist current of the nineteenth century that led to the formation of the European social democratic parties. It can also be seen as a product of a "developmental" or "radicalized" strand of liberal thought that--in the twentieth century--has been linked to the work of Keynes and Beveridge in Britain and the New Deal in the United States. Whether either claim to ancestry is accurate is not the concern of this paper, although the question does bear on a later consideration of the extent to which a social democratic approach to human rights challenges or sustains particular forms of power relations. Here the term "social democratic" encompasses both reformist socialist and radicalized liberal currents of thought. The term "liberal" denotes the classical liberal tradition and what is often referred to nowadays as neoliberalism.

Finally, this paper does not attempt to assess the social democratic intellectual tradition as such. Rather, it examines a particular construction of the concept of human rights. To focus the discussion I draw on recent work by Jack Donnelly, Henry Shue and the late John Vincent.(4) The importance of their work has been widely acknowledged, perhaps because all three have sought to straddle the boundary between theoretical analysis and practical prescription. While Donnelly has explicitly accepted the term "social-democratic" to describe his approach, neither Shue nor Vincent expressly do so. Nevertheless, there are key commonalities that unite their work and justify the use of the term when describing all three. This paper also identifies an important divergence which leads to quite different proposals as to how human rights should be guaranteed. Because a key distinguishing feature of the social democratic approach within the wider western debate on human rights is that it seeks to validate some form of economic and social rights, much of the discussion herein relates to this distinction and to the issue of economic power.

What follows is split into four main sections: The first section locates the social democratic approach in the context of the general debates on human rights. The second section examines thoroughly the construction of correlative duties within this approach. The third section examines ambiguities in the social democratic concept of human rights. Finally, the fourth section sets out some of the questions involved in assessing the extent to which the social democratic approach challenges or sustains economic and state power. The paper concludes by returning to the more general issue of the relationship between human rights and power.


There are two starting points for the social democratic concept of human rights. One, exemplified by Donnelly, begins with human rights, as set forth in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. To the extent that these documents incorporate and claim validity for economic and social rights, they serve as a reference point for the social democratic case.(5) The obvious gap between the rhetoric of these documents and the reality of acute poverty and deprivation for millions of people throughout the world, however, has led Shue and Vincent to eschew this quasi-positivism, seeking instead to justify a subset of "basic rights."(6) While these different starting points are not inconsequential, the distinction between "human rights" and "basic rights" is not of general relevance for what follows. Therefore, I use the terms "human rights" and "basic rights" as the context requires or else use the broader term "human rights."

With that caveat in mind, the first point to make is that the social democratic approach broadly accepts the validity of what have been usually termed civil and political rights.(7) This contrasts sharply with the liberal approach which tends either to deny the validity of economic and social rights or else gives clear primacy to civil and political rights.(8) It also contrasts with those "collectivist" traditions which tend to emphasize collective rather than individual rights and to see human rights in terms of benefits granted by the state, prioritizing economic and social rights if necessary, at the expense of civil and political rights.(9) Underpinning these views are three assumptions that both characterize and unify the social democratic approaches. These assumptions are:

1. that human rights must be understood in their social context;

2. that the origin and source of human rights are to be found in morality;

3. a recognition that an unregulated capitalist market produces severe inequalities of wealth and opportunities.

Each of these requires some elaboration.

A. Human Rights Must be Understood in Their Social Context

By recognizing that human rights must be understood in their social context, the social democratic approach appears to make an important break with the epistemological and methodological individualism associated with traditional liberal justifications of natural and human rights.(10) Instead of seeing individuals as having rights that are "natural" or that originate from the strength of an abstract sovereignty that predates the institutionalization of any particular social order, social democratic approaches premise the idea of rights on the vulnerability of individuals in the social world.(11)

In other words, people require human rights to protect them from potential violations arising from the social contexts in which they find themselves. Furthermore, whereas liberal approaches only tend to see violations of human rights occurring as the result of the conscious actions of specific actors, most importantly the state, the social democratic approach recognizes that human rights can be violated as a result of systemic or structural features of social processes.(12) It also recognizes the idea of human rights as a social project. Donnelly, for example, says that "human rights arise from human action," and "[h]uman rights specify a structure of social practices to achieve a particular realization of human potential."(13) Again, this contrasts sharply with the idea of abstract, timeless, universal rights prevalent in the liberal approach. One important consequence of this is a recognition that the original liberal formulations of natural rights were themselves socially and historically bound; they were the products of western thought at a particular moment of history. In this sense, social democratic approaches subscribe to what has been called a "weak cultural relativism." They reject, however, the "strong cultural relativism" which claims that the extent of cultural difference among the peoples of the world necessarily means the arguments for the universality of human rights can have no legitimacy, being either meaningless or serving to support a dominant and imperialist ideology.(14) The social democratic approach claims to resolve the potential conflict between universalism and particularism derived from social context in two ways: first, by grounding human rights in terms of morality; and second, by reference to the processes of modernization.

B. The Origin of Human Rights is Found in Morality

The social democratic approach shares the widespread view that human rights are, above all, moral rights, although what exactly that means is less than clear. For Donnelly, the source of human rights is "man's moral nature" and the rights themselves "are a special class of rights, the rights one has simply because one is a human being. They are thus moral rights of the highest order."(15)

In recognizing human rights as a social project, however, Donnelly also views them as necessarily involving interaction between "the ideal" and "the real," between moral vision and political practice. In terms of modernization, he argues that individuals need the protection of universal human rights because of modern societies' "individuation" that is increasing on a world scale, effectively supplanting any "old" ideas of community.(16) Shue does little more than assert that he conceives of rights as basic moral rights.(17) Vincent suggests that attempts to ground human rights in "what is transcendentally moral" is inadequate,(18) he nevertheless argues that rights play an important and unique role in moral language. They are, he says, "in the front line of moral evaluation and criticism."(19) While, as we shall see later, both Shue and Vincent make a link between morality, rights, and power, none of these three authors really makes clear the extent to which they seek to rely on universal or contextualized understandings of morality. There seem to be elements of both involved, and if so, this simply moves the question of the relation between the universal and the particular to another level.

C. Unregulated Capitalism Produces Severe Inequities

Turning to the third central assumption, what most clearly unites the social democratic approach and appears to set it apart from the classical liberal tradition, is the extent to which it proposes limits on the right to private property. Recognizing the rampant social inequalities produced by an unregulated capitalist economy, it is proposed that a right to private property cannot be considered a right to "unfettered accumulation." As Donnelly puts it, "[U]nless property is balanced by the other human rights and the market gives way when it infringes human rights, we have not a liberal theory of human rights but a partisan and quite crude defense of class privilege."(20)

Similarly in the context of his arguments for "basic rights," Shue argues that "property laws can be morally justified only if subsistence rights are fulfilled."(21) Willingness to limit property rights and the implicit search for social justice through the redistribution of resources make the link to the general social democratic political tradition apparent. This tradition, however, has typically proposed such solutions at the level of the nation state and social democratic parties have rarely emphasized the implications of the global application of such an analysis. Yet that is precisely what Shue and Vincent's works attempt to do. Vincent's central policy recommendation is that, as a project for international society, the provision of subsistence rights has a strong claim over other human rights. This "comes from a view of the suffering of the starving and malnourished as the worst offence to human rights in contemporary world society."(22) Taking up the same theme, in the context of the issues discussed in Basic Rights, Shue points out that "...for well over 1,000,000,000 human beings today the level of existence discussed here probably seems beyond reach, too far above them to be contemplated seriously. This need not be and must not continue."(23) With this, the subdivision in the social democratic approach, discussed in detail in the next section, begins to emerge. On the face of it, the works of Vincent and Shue attempt to set down a radical agenda for social change, an agenda couched in terms of a social democratic understanding of rights.


In any discussion of human rights, the way in which the duties correlative to those rights are constructed and understood is of crucial importance: What are they? and Who has them? are key questions. In answering the first of these questions, social democratic approaches share the standard view that any claim to a right is also effectively a claim that others have obligations to respect that right. However, in contrast to liberal approaches, which frequently claim that the only real rights are those which have "negative" duties--that is duties only requiring forbearance or non-interference--the social democratic approach either denies that a clear division of rights, in terms of positive or negative duties, is possible or else endorses the view that human rights can entail both negative and positive duties.(24) This supposed division has generated an enormous literature, but here if we need simply note that--in terms of seeking practical guarantees for economic and social rights--the social democratic approach gives emphasis to positive rather than negative duties. This can be seen clearly in the social democratic answers to the question, "Who has them?"

The social democratic approach provides a dual answer. On the one hand--and in general terms--duties are said to be universal in that they hold against all individuals and institutions at all times. On the other hand, when dealing in specifics--and especially when discussing economic and social rights--it is typically states who are said to have the duties to ensure that the rights of individuals are not violated. In other words, the social democratic approach is statist in its practical allocation of duties. While the foregoing points characterize the social democratic approach as a whole, the divergence referred to earlier also occurs around this question. What may be termed the "traditional" social democratic position holds that, for any particular individual, it is that person's own nation state that is duty-bound.(25) I shall refer to this strand as an "own-state duties" position. The other, more "radical" strand, proposes that states in addition to one's own may also have duties in respect to human rights. I shall refer to this position as an "other-state duties" position.(26)

The work of Donnelly epitomizes the "own-state duties" position, and the works of Shue and Vincent epitomize the "other-state duties" position. In looking at the social democratic analysis of correlative duties in more detail, this paper deals with these views separately.

A. Jack Donnelly and "Own-State Duties"

Donnelly provides a clear example of the general dualism characterizing the social democratic approach to duties. On the first page of Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, he suggests that human rights apply universally against all other persons and institutions, yet in the end he argues that "[t]he moral universality of human rights ... must be realized through the particularities of national action," on the basis that "[h]uman [r]ights are ultimately a profoundly national, not international issue."(27) The bulk of his arguments are rooted in these latter assumptions. He moves, in other words, from a general and unelaborated view of universal duties to a particular and elaborated "own-state duties" position. In a world comprising nation states, it is the nation state, Donnelly says, that has the first duty to respect and guarantee the human rights of its citizens. Given the threat of the modern state and "the especially fierce buffeting of the ever-changing modern economy," Donnelly asserts that "[r]ights held equally by all against the state ... are a seemingly natural and necessary response to typically modern threats to human dignity and basic human values, traditional and modern alike."(28)

With respect to economic and social rights, Donnelly and Howard both argue that the state has a particular and positive role to play. Because market distribution tends to be grossly unequal and degrading, inequalities cannot, they say, be permitted. "[T]he principle of equal concern and respect requires the state to act positively to cancel unjustifiable market inequalities at least to the point that all are assured a minimum share of resources through the implementation of social and economic rights."(29) Summing up their view of the type of political system required to uphold international human rights standards, Donnelly and Howard say that their "empirical referent ... is the social democratic welfare states of Europe, such as Norway and the Netherlands."(30)

B. Henry Shue, John Vincent and "Other State Duties"

Vincent describes the "own-state duties" position as a weak response to those who have sought to downgrade the position of economic and social rights. The position is weak, he says, precisely because it "imposes duties only on particular governments" whereas a strong position is to argue that there is no difference between the two sets of rights in terms of correlative duties.(31) The implication is that such duties are to be considered universal. But universal in what sense? Shue's elaboration of correlative duties describes this universality in greater detail, an important development in "rights talk" specifically endorsed by Vincent.(32)

With respect to "basic rights," Shue argues that there are three types of correlative duties "all of which must be performed if the basic right is to be fully honored." These duties are: (1) the duty to avoid depriving others; (2) the duty to protect from deprivation; and (3) the duty to aid the deprived.(33)

The duty to avoid depriving, he says, "must be universal and therefore applies to every individual and institution, including corporations."(34) Examining the power of transnational corporations and two minimal demands that can reasonably be made of them, Shue specifies the first duty as being that "[N]o individual or institution, including corporations, may ignore the universal duty to avoid depriving persons of their basic rights,"(35) adding that, to make any exceptions to this, would be to effectively deny the existence of the right. These are his most specific comments on the universality of "avoiding deprivation." Thus, while being implied throughout Basic Rights, the implications of such an argument were left unexplored.(36) Instead, Shue focuses most of his attention on the duty to protect from deprivation and to aid the deprived. These, he says, might not necessarily have universal scope.(37)

If not always systematic, Shue's argument is clear enough--responsibility for fulfilling correlative duties is effectively and practically located with states. Shue's list of duties with respect to a basic right to subsistence provides the clearest elaboration. These duties are:

1. To avoid depriving

2. To protect from deprivation

a. by enforcing duty (1)

b. by designing institutions that avoid the creation of strong incentives to violate duty (1)

3. To aid the deprived

a. who are one's special responsibility

b. who are victims of social failures in the performance of duties (1), (2-a), (2-b) and

c. who are the victims of natural disasters.(38)

Despite the comments cited earlier, Shue says it would be naive to expect everyone to fulfil duty (1) and that some institutions are, therefore, required to enforce it.(39) With respect to duty (2-a) he says "the primary institution would normally appear to be the government of the threatened person's own nation."(40) More generally, we can see that, with the exception of nongovernmental organizations, the only possible candidates to fulfil these duties are states.

While some of the above seems to advocate an "own-state duties" position (and Shue would not wish to deny that states had such duties) the thrust of Shue's argument and the main aim of Basic Rights is clearly to transcend that view. In fact, both Shue and Vincent are centrally concerned with arguing that other states also have duties--specifically that the powerful and affluent northern/western states have all three types of duties with respect to people living in southern or less-developed societies. As powerful international institutions in their own right, states have a duty to avoid deprivation. They should constrain deprivation caused by multinational corporations based in their own countries. They should further assist in designing appropriate international institutions to fulfil duty (2-b) and should fulfil duties (3-b) and (3-c), both as powerful institutions in their own right and on the basis of providing what Shue calls a "service duty" to fulfil the duty to aid held by the citizens of that state. Shue's book concludes by making specific recommendations for the reformulation of US foreign policy respecting the protection of basic rights.(41) Vincent neatly sums up their objective when he says that what is needed to fulfil economic and social rights is "the reproduction of a European welfare state on a global scale."(42)

Again we may note that the wide-ranging implications of such proposals suggest that the social democratic approach offers a valuable framework through which a radical human rights agenda can be set. But how true is that? The sections that follow examine this question.


The first section of this paper illustrated how the social democratic approach accepts that human rights should be viewed in their sociohistorical context and that the human rights idea itself can be seen as a social project. Additionally, by grounding rights claims through an individual's social vulnerability, the social democratic concept seems to leave far behind the much criticized "abstracted sovereign egoist" of the liberal tradition. Finally, in accepting that inequalities produced by a capitalist market economy can be a human rights issue and that social relations in the private realm are relevant, the social democratic approach seems to transcend the public/private dichotomy which underpins liberal political theory. In all of these ways, the social democratic approach goes a long way towards fulfilling the criteria previously suggested as necessary for developing an adequate conception of human rights.(43)

Yet despite all these points, the social democratic concept of human rights remains deeply ambiguous. All three of the central assumptions described earlier display elements of ambiguity, leaving the social democratic concept at least partially rooted in the liberal approach to rights. This ambiguity stems from a failure to fully contextualize the social democratic understanding of human rights, most particularly in terms of grasping the connection between human rights and power. The following examines in more detail issues of context and power.

There are two levels at which the social democratic approach has a manifestly broader understanding of the relation between power and human rights than that found in the liberal tradition with its traditional focus on state power.(44) The first level comes back to the idea of individual vulnerability, because the social democratic approach accepts that individuals are vulnerable to the exercise of power per se, and further because their thinking is not limited to particular forms of power. The second level, a derivation from the first, recognizes that individuals can be vulnerable to the operations of a capitalist market economy. This implies a recognition of the problems generated by the exercise of economic power in the private realm.

In both senses, then, the social democratic approach seems especially primed to talk about the relation between human rights and power. Indeed, the idea that human rights limits power or challenges existing power relationships is specifically articulated in ways that suggest that it is central to the social democratic approach to human rights.(45)

The social democratic approach, however, does not attempt to use power as an organizing concept for its analysis--it is not used systematically to locate or ground the concept of human rights. In this sense, given that power relations are deeply embedded in many--if not all--aspects of social life and social practices, the social democratic approach remains seriously "uncontextualized" despite clear claims to the contrary.

An important example, that is both illustrative and significant, concerns the way the social democratic concept sees the source of human rights in morality. As I have said, it is by no means clear whether the social democratic approach appeals to an abstract, universal understanding of morality or to a social, contextualized understanding of morality, or to both. To the extent that it seeks to rely on an abstract, universal understanding of morality, no link to extant power relations is possible precisely because such an appeal is "beyond context"--it is an appeal to an asocial universal abstraction of precisely the same type that claims to ground liberal ideas of rights. On the other hand, both Shue and Vincent suggest that the moral purpose of human or basic rights is to protect the weak and restrain the powerful.(46)

Yet, having made the point generally, they do not follow it through in detail. Appeals to morality are normative prescription--"what ought to be." A contextualized morality recognizes that "what ought to be" is in some way related to "what is." If power and power relations are a crucial element of the "what is" of human rights, then an adequately contextualized understanding of human rights must fully implicate and explicate them as such. It is the failure to do so that perhaps explains why the social democratic view of human rights as moral rights is left in a sort of limbo, a limbo between abstraction and context.

Another, and arguably more crucial, instance of the same problem leaves the social democratic approach embedded in the liberal tradition, paradoxically in precisely that area where it seems most clearly distinguishable from it, in its recognition of market threats to human rights. This best can be explained with reference to the public/private and state/civil society dichotomies.

As we have seen, the social democratic approach offers two answers to the question of who has correlative duties. While it is acknowledged conceptually that duties apply universally, in both the public and private realms, the social democratic approach looks to the state--the public realm--to enforce/uphold them. But this is precisely the way duties are also ascribed in the liberal tradition. Liberal theory seeks to justify the state in terms of the need for a public power to mediate conflict in the private realm--in civil society. In terms of natural/human rights, the role of the state is then to defend everyone's rights against everyone else. Correlative duties hold universally, but it is the state's role to enforce/uphold them. The social democratic analysis of market threats can be understood in these terms. Market inequalities constitute one form of conflict in civil society that the state is required to mediate. Putative universal duties in the private realm, in fact, are on the state to enforce/uphold the rights. Thus the apparent distinctiveness of the social democratic approach dissolves except insofar as it denies the strict superiority of the private realm over the public realm. But this "move" into the private sphere is partial. It neither closes nor requires the closure of the public/private dichotomy in terms of the ascription of duties or in terms of its understanding of power in the public and private realms.

The origins of the public/private and state/civil society dichotomies are to be found in key myths and fictions that serve as a foundation to liberal theory and that have been adequately criticized elsewhere for their abstraction from social context. In terms of social practices, scholars have recognized that the early liberal claims to natural rights were essentially a challenge to absolutist "state power."(47) From this perspective, ascribing duties to the state were demands that the state constrain itself from violating people's rights. Generalizing this in terms of power, those who proposed the rights claims as political and social demands ascribed duties to the particular form of power that they challenged.

Claims for economic and social rights are likewise bound up with the tangible struggles of the poor, the working class, and socialist activists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the heart of those struggles has been a consistent challenge to the legitimacy of economic power in the private realm. This being so, how does it follow that duties bound up with those rights claims should--for all practical purposes--only be ascribed to the state? In the social democratic approach why are duties, as political and social demands, not also ascribed centrally and manifestly to those who hold economic power in the private realm?

The failure to fully contextualize human rights in terms of power has led to a sort of conceptual "slippage." Instead of transferring the real social form of the liberal challenge to state power into their challenge to economic power, the social democratic analysts remain wedded to abstract categorizations of liberal theory. This crucially loses sight of the importance of "negative" demands against those who hold economic power in the private realm.

Having stated the lack of context, this paper now proposes a resolution of the tension within the social democratic approach, created by dualistic assignment of correlative duties. While Shue's specification of a universal duty to avoid deprivation appears to open the door to a serious interrogation of the behavior of powerful economic actors, such as multinational corporations, he does not follow through with the interrogation. This is because the social democratic concept of human rights has no way of particularizing these universal duties beyond assigning them to states. In other words, there is no way in which one individual's personal duty to avoid deprivation can be distinguished from, say, Shell Oil's duty to avoid deprivation. Yet, potentially at least, a calibration of duties could be made by taking correlative power into account, in the sense that the level of a social actor's duties could be related proportionally to its degree of power. While precise specifications would be difficult, an acceptance of the general proposition would at least make it clear that Shell Oil's duty to avoid deprivation was both qualitatively different from, and of a much greater magnitude, than that of most individuals. Even on this very general level, such a perspective brings an entirely new focus to the debate on human rights, and to the debate on economic and social rights in particular.


In the previous section this paper addressed basic ambiguities in the social democratic concept as they relate to political theory, context, and power. Here this analysis will sketch out some of the more practical issues that need to be considered in assessing the degree to which the social democratic approach challenges or sustains economic and state power. What will quickly become clear is that such questions bring us to some of the most wide-ranging and controversial issues in politics, international relations, and the social sciences generally.

A. Economic Power

The social democratic approach clearly poses a potential challenge to economic power in the private realm, by specifying that such power threatens human rights. In circumstances where the prevailing western debate on human rights remains dominated by the liberal tradition, both intellectually and in relation to the human rights policy of key western states, the importance of this should not be underestimated. Yet, the inability of the social democratic approach to apply its understanding of universal duties to economic actors in the private realm is a glaring weakness. In this crucial respect, the social democratic analysis seriously obscures a potentially vital means of challenging economic power, and thus serves to sustain it.

Human rights, as commonly understood, are regularly and systematically threatened and violated as a consequence of decisions taken by economic actors in the private realm. Such actors do not organize, and are not expected to organize, their business affairs to "avoid deprivation." Even if limited to Shue's "basic right" to subsistence, the behavior and decisions of powerful economic actors in the west are deeply complicit in such deprivations in the southern and less-developed societies on a daily basis. The objections that economic decisionmaking is not always a certain and predictable affair, and that deprivation often occurs as an unfortunate but unintended consequence of business, is germane but can be countered by proposing that economic actors owe a "duty of care" once it is recognized that economic decisions can lead to deprivation. While duties owed by the state might well be construed as necessary to cope with "systemic" deprivations, it does not follow that private economic actors are thereby absolved of all responsibility.(48)

It is doubtful that social democratic theorists would dispute these points, but they are simply not able to take up the arguments with the rigor expected of an analysis that recognizes the problem of market threats. The assumptions that it would be naive to expect economic actors to fulfil their duties and that violations are so systemic that economic actors bear no responsibility are inadequate attempts to conceal the ambiguities discussed above. A concept of human rights that requires economic actors to respect human rights would legitimize action against actors who do not do so and creates a general challenge to the legitimacy of the unconstrained exercise of economic power in the private realm. The social democratic approach, by effectively locating duties only within the state, severely disables this potential.

Next, consider the extent to which states' duties may themselves challenge or sustain economic power in the private realm--the question that, from the late nineteenth century onwards, has divided reformist from revolutionary socialism. At the heart of the social democratic approach is the assumption that states are able to challenge economic power in the private realm, insofar as they may intervene to constrain the exercise of power, and may establish "welfare states" to protect and aid the deprived. Yet many have argued persuasively that such measures serve to sustain the general relations of economic power by managing the social order so as to protect and legitimize those power inequities. That this is such a hotly disputed area itself demonstrates the ambivalence of statist solutions, as does the point that advocates of state intervention and a welfare state may have been motivated by opposing desires.(49) The details of these debates are familiar enough and will not be restated here. It is necessary, though, to comment further on the two solutions offered by the social democratic approach--the "own-state duties" position and the "other state duties" position.

An obvious and major problem with the "own-states duties" position, articulated by Donnelly, is posed by rapidly increasing global interdependence, both economic and political. For example, to say that the duties correlative to economic and social rights in Ethiopia rest only on the Ethiopian government, if you are not Ethiopian, amounts to little more than washing one's hands of any sort of duty or responsibility. It effectively empties the content of economic and social rights as any sort of challenge to existing power relations outside of that society itself. In other words, it pulls economic and social rights in a particular society out of its context in global power relations. Quite clearly, such societies are often at the mercy of much more powerful global forces: powerful states acting politically or economically, private economic actors (e.g. multinational corporations), and the structural vagaries of the global economy.

If this is most obviously the case with the smaller, poorer states, countries in the first world are not immune. Consider the British case. Basic economic and social rights have come under increasing pressure as recent governments have sought to "free-up" the market, partly by restricting both workers' rights and entitlement to welfare benefits. Often, the public justification for this is that Britain, after all, has to be competitive within the world economy. But what is this other than a politician's acceptance that state policy is constrained by external factors, the structural logic of the world market and the demands of powerful international economic actors. Donnelly exhibits an extraordinary degree of complacency on this issue given his recognition of the threats posed by private accumulation and a market economy, particularly because he explains the need for human rights partly in terms of a process of global modernization. Donnelly states that unlimited private accumulation would still threaten the very life of other "even in the wealthy West without state intervention";(50) however, he seems unable to ask what should be done about current threats and violations by private economic actors in societies that do not have the resources to establish welfare states. Regarding the west, in 1989, Donnelly wrote that "the welfare state has largely ended controversy over the idea of economic and social rights,"(51) as if, for example, Thatcherism in Britain never existed.

The own-state duties position can, of course, support and legitimate demands that states should attempt to protect their citizens from threats to economic and social rights. Currently, many political struggles and demands take this form, and if states, as powerful institutions in their own right, were forced to take such responsibilities more seriously, there is no doubt that a good deal of suffering could be averted. Even so, the combination of the general weaknesses of the social democratic approach and the specific weaknesses of the "own-state duties" position produces an inadequate construction of human rights, one that is entirely inadequate in terms of challenging private economic power and the extent to which such power is now exercised globally.

Despite predating Donnelly's work, Vincent and Shue's "other state duties" position can be seen as both a recognition of the increasing impact of global interdependency and as an attempt to transcend the inadequacies of an "own states duties" position. Indeed, in terms of the western debate on human rights, the position of Vincent and Shue establishes the most radical and challenging global agenda that, if taken seriously by the affluent western states, arguably could begin to make real inroads to alleviate the poverty and deprivation endured by a huge proportion of the world's population.

However, there are problems here, too. While the "other-states duties" position appears to offer a potentially practical way of protecting the basic rights of the most deprived peoples of the world, at the same time it may be a serious delusion--offering false promise by, again, obscuring the reality of global economic and political power relations. I simply note here that the richest and most powerful western states appear entirely committed to maintaining existing relations of economic power and we may reasonably assume they would not threaten or interfere substantially with those relations. Beyond this, in terms of the hierarchy of power between states in the international order, can we realistically expect the most powerful states to eschew their own interests for the benefit of peoples living in the most powerless states? And even if the richer and more powerful states accepted these duties, is there any reason to believe that those duties would not be interpreted and implemented imperialistically?

B. State Power

While the bulk of this paper has focused on economic and social rights and private economic power, it would be remiss not to briefly consider the social democratic approach in terms of its relation to challenging or sustaining state power.

In contrast to other approaches to human rights that have sought to defend or prioritize economic and social rights (from the old "east" and from the "south"), the social democratic approach does not simply ignore the problem of state power. Despite its statism, it neither proposes to protect economic and social rights by giving the state untrammelled power nor does it redefine rights as collective rights, held by the state. While neoliberals like to characterize social democracy generally as being on the "road to serfdom," the social democratic approach to human rights makes a clear and unequivocal commitment to those civil and political rights designed to protect individuals from state power, the challenge to the absolute sanctity of private property being a limited exception. The social democratic approach, to this extent, recognizes the problem of state power and accepts the legitimacy of challenging such power.

Yet it also needs to be acknowledged that statist solutions with respect to economic and social rights do entail an extension/expansion of state power on the basis that "power to" and "power over" are typically intertwined. The relevant issue is not state power over private economic power, the issue that motivates the neoliberal critique of social democracy, but the issue of state power over those who may be the recipients of protection and aid. Many acknowledge that welfare provisions are often delivered via bureaucratic and oppressive state structures, and as indicated above, an other-states' duties position is fraught with dangers in an international community with such a stark hierarchy of power relations between states.

Finally, consider the fact that the statism of the social democratic approach reflects a statism that pervades the human rights debate as a whole. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the dominant world discourses on human rights are almost exclusively tied up with states. First, although UN documents and institutions claim a supranational authority with respect to universal human rights, the United Nations is comprised of states. It is state representatives and diplomats who, crudely put, make human rights policies and who call on each other to implement them. While the activities of nongovernmental international human rights organizations are important, as is the international media's capacity to mobilize popular opinion around human rights issues, for the most part, human rights are kept firmly locked away in the rarefied atmosphere of international relations and international law. They are cocooned in the international arena, an arena dominated by states. Second, all major strands of intellectual debate on human rights, despite their other differences and oppositions, are unified by statist assumptions. This paper has examined the social democratic approach, but the liberal tradition also focuses almost exclusively on states, albeit in a negative way, while intellectuals from both the old east and the south tend to give primacy to states, either as holders or trustees of collective rights, or as the only social institution that has the capacity to grant rights.

Recognizing that human rights and states are intimately intertwined might seem an unremarkable observation. yet, putting all these points together, what we have is a debate on human rights that is highly state centric, where there is little space for thinking about human rights in any other way. This, I would suggest, is tremendously problematic. Because state power is a problem, a "standard threat,"(52) there is a danger that the state centrism of the debate feeds and reinforces that problem. Specifically, proposed statist solutions to human rights problems might have a negative effect, insofar as they might encourage a passive acceptance of state power. Furthermore, the state centricity of the human rights debate is indicative of a top-down way of thinking about human rights. The state is at the top, human beings at the bottom, and the statism guiding the debates is both a symptom and a cause of such thinking. Not only is this elitist, it is also disabling. It constrains the potential for popular mobilization around human rights issues and points any mobilizations that do occur towards nothing other than the state. The late John Vincent said that campaigns for human rights must be subversive,(53) but subversion and the state are strange bedfellows. In terms of challenging existing power relations, the deeply embedded statism of the social democratic approach results in losing sight of one of the principal targets. Private economic power poses a standard threat to human rights and needs to be directly challenged as such.


This paper has shown, through discussion of power and power relations, that there are profound ambiguities in the social democratic concept of human rights and that the social democratic approach occupies an ambivalent position insofar as the social and political practices that follow from it both challenge and yet sustain state and private economic power. In this way, the social democratic approach displays the same general characteristics found in liberal and Marxist approaches to human rights. This indicates the wider utility of analyzing ideas of human rights in terms of power and power relations. Accepting that ideas of human rights can only be justified insofar as they challenge rather than sustain existing relations of power, then we must now recognize that there are serious deficiencies with all three of the approaches derived from the western intellectual tradition that have dominated the debate on human rights.

The clearest and most unambiguous deficiency of the social democratic approach is that its construction of duties fails to effectively interrogate the behavior of powerful economic actors in the private realm. Furthermore, the assumption that economic and social rights can only be protected by states flounders, because states are themselves enmeshed in wider economic and political relations.

The wide-ranging and contestable nature of many of the issues mentioned in the last section of this article, however, points to the difficulties involved when one attempts to view human rights in terms of power and power relations. The extent and depth of the dispute over whether states constrain or sustain the exercise of private economic power illustrates that rational assessment of such matters is no easy task.

If, as suggested in the foregoing, the particular statism of the social democratic solutions and the more general state centrism of the human rights debate are problematic, then we must develop a very different strategy for the establishment and protection of human rights, one that is rooted in, and clearly accepts the legitimacy of, political and social demands generated in popular struggles and social movements that directly challenge the legitimacy of existing relations of power.(54) The alternative, trying to set human rights above the fray by abstracting the concept or locating duties with states, is simply an error. A socially constructed concept such as human rights can never be put beyond context and power. Attempts to do just this have enabled the idea of human rights to be ideologically redeployed to sustain existing power relations.

The social democratic approach to human rights is no exception. Demands directed towards states are clearly of great importance, but they are not sufficient. The statism of the social democratic approach is too limited and its concept of human rights far too ambiguous. Whatever the difficulties involved, it must be superseded by a reconstructed notion of human rights, systematically grounded and understood to challenge existing power relations--a notion of human rights that enables, not disables, those whose voices are currently stifled by the dominant western discourses on human rights, both liberal and social democratic.



(3.)For further discussion of the use of a social constructionist approach and the concept of power, see STAMMERS, supra note 1.


(5.)It is perhaps worth noting that the 1948 Declaration was framed at a time when the principles of Keynsian economics had become a respectable orthodoxy and many of the major western powers had broadly accepted the need for state intervention and a welfare state. That orthodoxy has been increasingly challenged since the late 1970s.

(6.)For specification of these see SHUE, supra note 4, at ch. 1.

(7.)See DONNELLY, supra note 4, at ch. 2, SHUE, supra note 4, at pt. 1, VINCENT, supra note 4, at 11-13.


(9.)Donnelly provides an interesting discussion of "Non-Western Conceptions of Human Rights," see DONNELLY, supra note 4, at ch. 3. For a classic "Soviet-style" view see, Imre Szabo, Fundamental Questions Concerning the Theory and History of Citizens Rights in THE SOCIALIST CONCEPT OF HUMAN RIGHTS (Jozsef Halasz ed., 1966).

(10.)For more detailed comments on the importance of this see STAMMERS, supra note 1, at 70-75.

(11.)DONNELLY, supra note 4, at ch. 1; SHUE, supra note 4, at 18-19; VINCENT, supra note 4, at 17. See also Bryan S. Turner, Outline of a Theory of Human Rights, 27 SOCIOLOGY, 489-512 (1993).

(12.)See, e.g., SHUE, supra note 4, at 47.

(13.)DONNELLY, supra note 4, at 17-18.

(14.)See id. at ch. 6; VINCENT, supra note 4, at ch. 3.

(15.)DONNELLY, supra note 4, at 12.

(16.)Id. at 59-60.

(17.)SHUE, supra note 4, at 13-20.

(18.)VINCENT, supra note 4, at 14.

(19.)Id. at 17.

(20.)DONNELLY, supra note 4, at 102. Donnelly uses the term "liberal" here to refer to the radical or developmental strand of liberal thought which he feels can also be termed "social democratic."

(21.)SHUE, supra note 4, at 124.

(22.)VINCENT, supra note 4, at 2.

(23.)SHUE, supra note 4, at ix.

(24.)See id. at 35-45. Shue's analysis is endorsed by Vincent and Donnelly. See VINCENT, supra note 4, at 13; DONNELLY, supra note 4, at 33-34.

(25.)It is traditional in two senses. First, earlier social democratic analyses of economic and social rights have almost universally adopted an "own state duties" position. Second, the social democratic political tradition generally has concentrated on nation states as the institutions responsible for attempting to control the market economy within their own jurisdiction. Yet arguably, as global interdependence increases, such a position becomes increasingly untenable.

(26.)In international law other. states have always been expected to have some duties with respect to aliens and refugees, but this is not central to my argument.

(27.)DONNELLY, supra note 4, at 1, 266, 269.

(28.)Id. at 122.

(29.)Id. at 72.

(30.)Id. at 73.

(31.)VINCENT, supra note 4, at 12.

(32.)See id. at 11, 147.

(33.)SHUE, supra note 4, at 52. Although Shue develops this argument specifically in terms of his "basic rights" rather than "human rights," he clearly believes that this three-fold typology may be applied generally. Id. at 54-55.

(34.)Id. at 112.

(35.)Id. at 170.

(36.)Vincent's work makes a similar argument and exhibits a similar trait. In fact, he notes that the fulfillment of a universal duty to avoid deprivation might imply a radical change in the international economic order. Yet, having made that suggestive point, he never follows it up. VINCENT, supra note 4, at 127.

(37.)SHUE, supra note 4, at 120.

(38.)Id. at 60.

(39.)Id. at 55.

(40.)Id. at 56.

(41.)Id. at ch. 7.

(42.)VINCENT, supra note 4, at 144.

(43.)STAMMERS, supra note 1.

(44.)For further discussion of this see, id, at 73-75.

(45.)I drew attention to this in my earlier article with respect to Vincent and Shue. It is somewhat less clear with respect to Donnelly, but see DONNELLY, supra note 4, at 37, 60.

(46.)SHUE, supra note 4, at 18; VINCENT, supra note 4, at 17.

(47.)See STAMMERS, supra note 1, at 73-77.

(48.)The tendency for much socialist literature to see economic exploitation as structural or systemic may also partially explain why the social democratic approach has not adequately addressed the duties of powerful economic actors. Shue provides a hypothetical example of how economic deprivation can occur which he suggests is systemic. But this would be true only if the social actors involved were entirely unconscious of the possible consequences of their actions. In the example Shue gives this is possible but not necessarily so. See SHUE, supra note 4, at 41-51.

(49.)See for example, the recent critical claim by TED BENTON, NATURAL RELATIONS, 116-17 (1993) and Istvan Meszaros' comments on the motivation of Keynes, The Social Standpoint of Keynsian Ideology in PHILOSOPHY, IDEOLOGY AND SOCIAL SCIENCE 37-40 (1986).

(50.)DONNELLY, supra note 4, at 96.

(51.)Id. at 30-31.

(52.)SHUE, supra note 4, at 15, 29-34.

(53.)VINCENT, supra note 4, at 102.

(54.)This is a point which is beginning to be developed by some political theorists, especially those concerned with social movements and civil society. See, e.g., JEAN COHEN AND ANDREW ARATO, CIVIL SOCIETY AND POLITICAL THEORY (1992).
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Author:Stammers, Neil
Publication:Human Rights Quarterly
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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