Empowerment, Inclusion, and Equality Through Human Rights – Are we Really Achieving it?

“In essence, one has to conclude that human rights empower states far more than individuals, albeit in a nuanced manner.”

Human rights are an oft-misunderstood notion within global politics, with many turning a blind-eye to their deeper mechanisms in favour of proclaiming their individually liberating qualities. Such neglection will be proved flawed through a look at how growing institutionalisation of said rights empowers states far more than any individual as well as the fact that the dichotomy between individuals and citizens means human rights are not accessible to all individuals. After a theoretical illumination of such arguments, one will meet the conclusion that human rights in world politics do not empower individuals over states, with the truth being quite the opposite.

Human rights are a notion that vary depending on who one asks, with some labelling them particularistic and others rendering them universal (Kapur 2019:499-508). Such an absence of a mutually agreeable discourse highlights how human rights are not an a priori notion because of mutual humanity, but instead a notion shaped by ideas of mutual humanity and what it means to be human (Shani 2019:526). In an effort to actualise such rights, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is is supported by most states and is technically a legal necessity (Shani 2019:524), was enshrined. This said, due to the discourse of human rights being universal in world politics becoming institutionalised via this declaration, human rights are only becoming more and more detached from the individuals they are supposed to empower (Brown 2019:217). States hold the power in their implementation, and their legitimacy can only benefit from such usage (Dunne and Wheeler 2019:343-6), which means that human rights are essentially at the mercy of the state; they empower the state and vice versa (Shani 2019:527-37). Thus, before any individuals can be empowered, the state is empowered above all else, as it holds leverage over the citizens which it can only benefit from: human rights are a normative means of ensuring state legitimacy, not necessarily to the benefit of the individual. It is not always this simple, however,

One does have to note that not every state benefits in the same way from the institutionalisation of these rights, as a theoretical lens illuminates. There is power in discourse (Hansen 2019:179), and along a post-structuralist approach, one can see how Western dominance in global politics translates to the West dominating the human rights debate. Actors do not exist apart from political discourses (Hansen 2019:181), and thus norms such as human rights are merely vehicles of Western ideological power (Kapur 2019:503). Take the example of the US passing a law in 2002 to grant military personnel exemption from prosecution by the International Criminal Court, meaning, thus far, only African leaders have suffered such prosecution in the absence of a similar law (Dunne and Wheeler 2019:248). Such an example typifies Western power over human rights and their consequences, and also how cynically proactive human rights actually are- if nobody is prosecuted because the discourse has been shaped to US ideals, US legitimacy persists unchallenged. There is thus no escaping the fact that the idea of human rights is merely a form of Western imperialism. Such a conclusion is furthered by the realist argument that power politics are making a return (Dunne and Schmidt 2019:143) – human rights are merely another means of ensuring the continuation of current power dynamics, meaning the fact remains that as much as some states are empowered by human rights before any individuals, such empowerment is not binary. This absence of mutual empowerment can be exemplified by how they do not empower all individuals, much like they do not empower all states.

For instance, the common state practice of aligning birth and citizenship renders human rights very much at the mercy of the state (Shani 2019:536-7) as to whether any non-native can gain such rights, feeding into the idea that human rights empower the state with legal power as well as the ideological power noted above. This example also demonstrates how human rights are political tools that can confine and repress instead of empower (Kapur 2019:511), meaning empowerment is logically contingent and state dependent. The dichotomy between individual and citizen elicited by such practices means that for human rights to actually benefit individuals more than states, they have to be separated from institutionalism (Shani 2019:540), be that in legal declarations or processes, but this is a distant possibility at best. When one notes that taking a narrower, individualistic approach to dealing with human rights would simply result in the structures that perpetuate state empowerment above all else being maintained (Kapur 2019:504), the notion that human rights do not benefit everyone, much like they do not benefit every state, becomes inevitable.

Approaching this point theoretically, one can further see how the paradigmatic shift required for human rights to empower the individual above the state is seemingly unattainable. Realists view human rights with suspicion in the sense that foreign policy based on morality could and will disrupt the international order (Dunne and Wheeler 2019:338), meaning that structural shifts in a state-centric world (Heywood 2015:128) are increasingly unlikely, as that would risk threatening Western power and subsequently Western legitimacy. Such a conclusion is supported along a post-structuralist line of approach, as the idea that the national and international stabilise each other (Hansen 2019:187) logically means that the asymmetrical power currents seen in Western dominance over human rights internationally can translate into a similarly exclusionary discourse domestically, as shown by the individual/citizen dichotomy, in order to stabilise state policy on both scales, rendering human rights markedly inaccessible.

In essence, one has to conclude that human rights empower states far more than individuals, albeit in a nuanced manner. Not all states are beneficiaries of the discourse, and even in the states that do benefit, not every individual necessarily has access, and thus not every individual is necessarily empowered. There is no escaping Western dominance over the human rights agenda, nor is there any escaping the fact that it is, above all else, a political tool to further Western ideological imperialism. None of this is to suggest there are not positives to human rights, but one does have to bare in mind that they are by no means perfect. Admittedly, this essay lacks the length to assess opposing sides in depth and the scope to tackle more of an intrinsically complex and broad issue, but this does not negate any conclusions made, as the mix of actualised and theoretical analysis presents one with the firm conclusion that human rights empower states above the individual.


Bowden, B., (2004). “In the Name of Progress and Peace: the “Standard of Civilization” and the Universalizing Project”. Alternatives29(1), pp.43-68.

Brown, C. (2019). Understanding International Relations. 5th ed. London: Red Globe Press

Dunne, T. and Schmidt, B.C (2019). “Realism” in Baylis, J., Smith, S., Owens, P., (eds.) The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. 8th ed. Oxford; Toronto: Oxford University Press, Chapter 8.

Dunne, T., Wheeler, N.J., (2019). “Great Illusions or Great Transformations? Human Rights and International Relations a Hundred Years On”. International Relations33(2), pp.338-356.

Hansen, L., (2019). “Post-Structuralism” in Baylis, J., Smith, S., Owens, P., (eds.) The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. 8th ed. Oxford; Toronto: Oxford University Press, Chapter 11.

Heywood, A. (2015). Global Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kapur, R., (2020). ‘Human Rights’, in Baylis, J., Smith, S., Owens, P., (eds.) The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. 8th ed. Oxford; Toronto: Oxford University Press, Chapter 31.

Shani, G., (2019). “Who has rights” in Edkins, J., Zehfuss, M., (eds) Global Politics: A New Introduction, Third Edition: London, Routledge, Chapter 25.

Aaron Mingay has just finished the first year of his degree in BA Theology and International Relations at the University of Exeter. He hopes to begin a Masters in Theology on completion of this. Possessing aspirations of a career dealing with matters of religious freedom and diplomacy, he holds a vested interest in the topics he writes about, particularly issues regarding contemporary religion.

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