The following is excerpted from Why Canada Cares: Human Rights and Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice by Andrew Lui.
The theory of human rights has been contested repeatedly and on numerous grounds since the international recognition of the concept occurred with the advent of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 and the subsequent adoption of the UDHR in 1948. The ideological conflict of the Cold War, for instance, caused a divide between those states favouring political and civil rights and those favouring economic and social rights. A prominent debate in the 1980s, launched by the so-called “right to development thesis,” then centred on whether individual human rights are the product of, or the necessary conditions for, improvements in collective economic and social welfare. Similar issues were raised about the relationships linking human rights, development, and democracy. Driven largely by the governments of Singapore and China, the “Asian values debate” asked whether the cultural traditions of non-Western societies preclude human rights universalism. The tensions between human rights and sovereignty have hence preoccupied scholarship since the beginning of the post-Cold War era.
The concept of human rights has nonetheless withstood these challenges and remains an important issue in international relations. To borrow Jack Donnelly’s expression, human rights have achieved “international normative universality” in that the vast majority of the world’s states now accept– in practice, in rhetoric, or as ideal standards – the validity of human rights as a normative principle. They have become what Mervyn Frost calls “settled norms” of international politics such that contravention of international human rights standards requires explicit and particular justification. For Louis Henkin, human rights is “the idea of our times, the only political idea that has earned universal (at least nominal) acceptance. The universalization of the human rights idea has contributed to a universal, if modest, human rights culture. Internationalization of this idea and the growing body of international human rights law have penetrated state societies and have injected specific human values into inter-state politics and law and into the life of international institutions.”
But human rights are facing a new set of challenges in international relations. Contemporary global pressures from anti-terror campaigns, financial collapse, and the prospect of rising global powers fuel speculation that the currency of human rights may be waning. While the idea of human rights has succeeded in winning near-universal approval, the systemic failure to advance international norms beyond “nominal acceptance” raises concerns that human rights advocacy may have reached its upper limit.