Reflections on Human Rights and Power

In Adam Etinson (ed.), Human Rights: Moral or Political? Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 375-399 (2018)
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Human rights are particularly relevant in contexts in which there are significant asymmetries of power, but where these asymmetries exist the human rights project turns out to be especially difficult to realize. The stronger can use their disproportionate power both to threaten others’ human rights and to frustrate attempts to secure their fulfillment. They may even monopolize the international discussion as to what human rights are and how they should be implemented. This paper explores this tension between the normative ideal of human rights and the facts of asymmetric power. It has two objectives. The first, pursued in section 2, is to reconstruct and assess a set of important power-related worries about human rights. These worries are sometimes presented as falsifying the view that human rights exist, or at least as warranting the abandonment of human rights practice. The paper argues that the worries do not support such conclusions. Instead, they motivate the identification of certain desiderata for the amelioration of human rights practice. The paper proceeds to articulate twelve such desiderata. The second objective, pursued in section 3, is to propose a strategy for satisfying the desiderata identified in the previous section. In particular, the paper suggests some ways to build empowerment into the human rights project that reduce the absolute and relative powerlessness of human rights holders, while also identifying an ethics of responsibility and solidarity for contexts in which power asymmetries will not dissolve. Power analysis does not debunk the human rights project. Properly articulated, it is an important tool for those pursuing it.
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