security and human rights

Written by Hurain Sheikh 11:47 am

Security and Human Rights as Explained by IR Theories

The author explains the issues of security and human rights by illustrating a juxtaposition of the central concepts of international relations — constructivism, liberal institutionalism, normative theory, and offensive realism.

Introduction

By comparing and contrasting the different theories of international relations, this paper will depict how issues related to security and human rights are universally understood and dealt with in distinctive ways.

Realism’s Goals & Means

In offensive realism, the goal of states is survival due to the presence of anarchy. Hence, states look to accumulate power to secure themselves against the threat and unpredictability of other states.1 Therefore, power is ensured by military capabilities and reaching a regional hegemonic or unipolar status.2

Liberal Institutionalism’s Goals & Means

Contrary to realists, liberal institutionalists believe that the goal of states is not only survival but also to improve social and economic conditions.3 Hence, the existence of international organizations assist in fostering cooperation and absolute gains between states through different mechanisms such as negotiations, reciprocity, asymmetrical interdependence, and the application of transactional costs.4  

Constructivism’s Goals & Means  

Constructivists theorize that the international structure is neither predetermined nor fixed as realists and liberals have conceptualized it to be “anarchic”. Rather, it is the resulting construct of state interactions, norms, and ideologies in global affairs.5 This is an example of contingency, and these norms and ideologies can be altered by means of discourse and advocacy.6

Normative Theory’s Goals & Means

As opposed to the other theorists, normative theorists emphasize the structural issues in international affairs.7 Therefore, similarly to constructivists, the goals of actors are contingent but using means of domination to reach their goals.8

Issue no. 1: Security

Offensive Realism

Mearsheimer’s theorizes that states will look to accumulate power by enhancing their military capacity such as with nuclear weapons for the end goal of survival. In this context, revisionist states (e.g., Russia) will enhance their military capacity to balance against the status quo power (e.g., the US), or seek regional hegemony due to the threat and uncertainty posed by the US.

However, this is a cause for insecurity for the US who will view this militarization as a threat to its own survival, its security dilemma.9 Consequently, this leads to an “arms race”10 among states, similar to the one seen during the Cold War. Both the US and the USSR had invested in building their nuclear capabilities to achieve security under the overall threat of nuclear deployment.

In this scenario, it was difficult to differentiate whether this nuclear build-up was for defensive or offensive reasons.11 Therefore, there is an importance placed on differentiating between offensive and defensive military capacity to reduce the occurrence of the security dilemma and military escalation.12

Liberal Institutionalism

Liberal institutionalists argue that, contrary to strengthening military capacity, countries can achieve collective security through diplomacy. However, the obstacle towards achieving cooperation is non-compliant or cheating states, which creates a prisoner’s dilemma.13 However, through means of containment, monitoring, and applying transactional costs, these institutions can mitigate the occurrence of prisoner’s dilemma.

For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed to prevent military conflict and the threat posed by the USSR. This paved the way for the signing of multiple non-nuclear proliferation treaties to mitigate the occurrence of threat and uncertainty. For example, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed to prevent the rapid increase of nuclear weapons and towards nuclear disarmament during the Cold War.

Hence, both the US and USSR achieved cooperation towards reducing their nuclear arsenal through regular meetings and monitoring of the dismantlement process of the nuclear arsenal in the other’s stockpile.14 Here, we can see that these institutions and treaties reduced the uncertainty posed by prisoner’s dilemma through monitoring and containment of the great powers (US and USSR).15 Moreover, these measures moved towards achieving collective security and absolute gains by facilitating cooperation.

Constructivism

Constructivists argue that it is state interactions and ideologies that prompt discourses of national security and threat from the “other” states.16 Hence, the interaction between countries in international affairs does not need to result in power politics. For example, the Cold War ended due to Gorbachev’s reforms towards communist structured policies, which changed the “identity” of the Soviets in global affairs and ended their rivalry with the US.17

Moreover, during Bush’s presidency, he used the language of “terrorism”18 and “threat”19 during 9/11 to wage war against the Middle East. In both scenarios, the use of ideologies and identities is what influences political actors towards their interactions with other states, which can be altered through advocacy and discourse towards adopting different norms.

For example, as seen with the nuclear taboo, there was a collective movement of different actors towards preventing the use of nuclear weapons, which has now become a “universal norm”20 towards its first use. Therefore, for constructivists, security-related issues can vary depending on the norms and ideas international actors aim towards.

Normative Theory

Contrary to liberals and realists, normative theorists point out the structural flaws in global affairs, such as the importance of national security over human security. They emphasize the threats to an individual’s security such as war crimes, inequality, poverty, and diseases.21 For example, the traditional view of national security is achieved by means of power and military capabilities.

However, feminists point out the threats posed towards individuals’ security are due to the adverse effects of war on civilian lives and the increase in wartime sexual violence. Here, there is an emphasis on the violence and injustice brought about by war, but due to the state-centric traditional view of power as a means of insurance, it has not gained momentum.22

Moreover, there are other structural problems in international affairs, as they are formed by traditional western male concepts of power, dominance, and rationality. Due to these gender and cultural prejudices in the international structure, there are obvious inequalities, as women are usually at the bottom of socio-economic problems.

Also Read:  Trump’s Language of Populism and Construction of Identity

Therefore, Tickner depicts how the traditional view of global affairs is gender-biased and promotes inequality as it affects an individual’s security and oppresses certain groups of people through gender, race, class, and ethnicity.23

Issue no. 2: Human Rights

Offensive Realism

Offensive realists focus on national interest and state sovereignty. In this context, human rights language is merely a tool used by powerful states to secure their interests relative to others. For example, Mearsheimer depicts that the international organizations that exemplify human rights reflect the distribution of power of the Western-European dominance.24

Moreover, there is a falsity as political leaders will use the language of human rights to persecute or invade other countries. For example, the US’s persecution of their neighboring south25 and then the Middle East during 9/11.26 However, these principles are undermined within their own state and are often ignored due to lack of benefit.

In this realm, there is more emphasis placed on state sovereignty. Therefore, human rights advocates rarely take punitive measures to pressure countries to improve the treatment of the people unless there are benefits for such.27

Liberal Institutionalism

Contrary to realists, liberal institutionalists point to the various normative treaties and values that have emerged from the UN, such as the UDHR, the ICCPR, and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).28 These treaties and values reinforce progress towards normative goals in international affairs. For example, the EU tends to favor and give membership to states that have incorporated liberal norms of human rights and the rule of law.29

Moreover, the rules and principles established by these institutions encourage domestic institutions and non-state actors to adopt these norms and values within their own state.30 Therefore, through the existence of these international organizations, there is more attention to human rights in global affairs.

Constructivism

Constructivists point out that since the international structure is composed of different ideologies, norms and values are evolving. Various actors have encouraged the narrative of human rights and prompted them to be an integral part of the international system. For example, international organizations have established and promoted these normative values as seen with the UN and other relevant treaties, while other state and non-state actors have played a key role in promoting and internalizing them.31

For example, countries that restrict human rights are usually condemned, shamed, and sometimes pressured into applying these norms by other states or by international organizations.32 Moreover, similarly to the nuclear movement, the advocacy and movement towards normative issues is stronger and seek to instill these values through the logic of appropriateness.33

This means adopting norms and values that are considered socially acceptable in decision-making.34 Therefore, human rights-related issues are gaining more value through these mechanisms.

Normative Theory

Like feminists, justice theorists point out the current flaws of human rights norms and treaties due to the presence of inequality and as being “Eurocentric”.35 The argument is that these norms and treaties promote the narrative of universality. However, because these universal norms were created by the West and were not inclusive of other cultures, they tend to favor Western regimes and cultures.36

These “universal” norms tend to vary across different cultures, which can be noted in the higher number of tribunals towards non-westerners in the International Criminal Court (ICC) than westerners.37 Therefore, the current discourses and campaigns surrounding human rights lack the inclusivity of other cultures towards their universal application.

Theoretical Comparison: Security & Human Rights

Offensive Realism 

State security is given prioritization by offensive realists over the issues related to human rights. The claim is that due to the anarchic structure of the world, states become self-reliant to ensure their sovereignty and survival from other states. This influences states to pursue power as a means of security by investing in military buildup. Therefore, military capacity ensures the state’s security.38

Moreover, this concept of power politics is similarly applied to the narrative of human rights, which is used by powerful states to secure their goals. Generally, states will make use of human rights to gain power over other countries by invading or constraining other states as seen with the Middles East. Therefore, the sovereignty and security of the state are given utmost importance over the issues related to human rights.39

Liberals Institutionalism

Institutionalists believe that there are other means that states can use to achieve collective security that does not include military means. Although the universal structure is anarchic, cooperation between states can be achieved through international organization.40 These organizations promote cooperation by building trust amongst states through reciprocity, supervision, applying transaction costs, and influencing state behavior as seen with the establishment of the EU.41

The presence of these organizations has made conflict less likely and has contributed to socio-economic gains. In the context of human rights, however, normative treaties do lack the same significance that is given to nuclear treaties or trade as they are lacking in punitive measures and monitoring.42 Due to the presence of these organizations, there is more emphasis on incorporating normative values in interstate and intrastate affairs, as there is a globalized effort towards human rights.

Constructivism

Constructivists approach the nation-centric view of security as socially constructed by the historical interactions, norms, and beliefs of states. The argument is that because states have conceptualized anarchy in global affairs, this influences states towards becoming self-reliant and the perception of other states as threats.43 However, states can achieve cooperation, security, and peace without the need to increase their national security by changing their perceptions and ideologies.

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Moreover, constructivists point to the narrative of human rights gaining more value in the international system; this can be seen through the socialization of these norms through social movements of non-political actors, diffusion of these norms by international institutions, and logic of appropriateness applied by shaming states that are restrictive towards these norms.44

Therefore, issues related to international security and human rights vary depending on the importance the political and non-political actors emphasize towards them and what they conceptualize them to be.  

Normative Theory

For normative theorists, issues related to security and human rights are not far apart as there is more emphasis given to human-related issues rather than state-centric issues in international affairs. They believe that human-related issues of basic rights and security are not given much importance due to the traditional view of global affairs that is centered around western and masculine views of the world.45

This structure tends to promote state-related issues of sovereignty, power, and dominance. Normative theorists argue in a need for change on how human-related issues are dealt with in global affairs by being more inclusive towards other genders, cultures, and ideas that can improve on human security and basic rights, such as poverty, military-based violence, and diseases.46

Thus, Normative theorists point to the current flaws that are present in the international structure and look to improve on these issues that go beyond the state-centric view in international affairs.

Conclusion

By comparing and contrasting different concepts and theories on issues related to international security and human rights, we can understand how global actors view these issues in various ways and position themselves to solve them. Due to the traditional state-centered view in the world, issues related to international security have always been extremely important. However, due to globalization and the emphasis on human security, human rights-related issues are gaining momentum and are becoming an integral part of the international system.   


Endnotes

[1] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 3: Realism Continued Lecture Notes,” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[2] John J. Mearsheimer, “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power,” from The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), pp. 29-54

[3] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 4: Liberalism Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International Relations,     Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[4] Robert O Keohane. “International Institutions: Can Interdependence Work?” Foreign Policy 110, no. 110 (1998): 82–194.

[5] Alexander Wendt. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 46,        no. 2 (1992): 391–425, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2706858.

[6] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 5: Constructivism Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[7] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 9: Normative Theories Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[8] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Theories Framework,” (Introduction to International Relations, Montreal:          Concordia University, 2021).

[9] John J. Mearsheimer, “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power,” from The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), pp. 29-54

[10] Robert Jervis. “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma.” World Politics 30, no. 2 (1978): 167–214

[11] Jervis. “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma.” 167–214

[12] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 6: Nuclear Weapons Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[13] Kenneth A Oye. “Explaining Cooperation Under Anarchy: Hypotheses and Strategies.” World Politics 38, no.1 (1985): 1–24.

[14] Robert O Keohane. “International Institutions: Can Interdependence Work?” Foreign Policy 110, no. 110 (1998): 82–194.

[15] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 8: International Institutions Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[16] Karin M Fierke. “Constructivism.” International Relations Theories: discipline and diversity (2007): 166-184.

[17] Alexander Wendt. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 46,        no. 2 (1992): 391–425.

[18] Fierke, “Constructivism.” 166-184.

[19] Fierke, “Constructivism.” 166-184.

[20] Nina Tannenwald, “Stigmatizing the bomb: Origins of the nuclear taboo.” International Security. 29.4 (2005): 5-49

[21] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 9: Normative Theories Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[22]Ann J. Tickner, “You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements between Feminists and Ir Theorists.” International Studies     Quarterly 41, no. 4 (1997): 611–32.

[23] Tickner, “You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements between Feminists and Ir Theorists.” 611–32.

[24] John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions.” International Security 19, no. 3 (1994): 5–49.

[25] Makau Mutua, “Articles – Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal 42,         no. 1 (2001): 201.

[26] Karin M Fierke. “Constructivism.” International Relations Theories: discipline and diversity (2007): 166-184.

[27] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 10: Human Rights and Justice” (Introduction to International Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[28] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 10: Human Rights and Justice Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[29] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 7: The European Union Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021)

[30] Eric Neumayer, “Do International Human Rights Treaties Improve Respect for Human Rights?” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49,               no. 6 (2005): 925–53.

[31] Barnett, Michael, and Martha Finnemore. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations.” International          Organization 53, no. 4 (1999): 699–732.

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[32] Barnett, Michael, and Martha Finnemore, “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations.” 699–732.

[33] Beth A. Simmons, “The Future of the Human Rights Movement.” Ethics & International Affairs 28, no. 2 (2014): 183–96.

[34] Karin M Fierke. “Constructivism.” International Relations Theories: discipline and diversity (2007): 166-184.

[35] Makau Mutua, “Articles – Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal 42,         no. 1 (2001): 201.

[36] Makau Mutua, “Articles – Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal 42,         no. 1 (2001): 201.

[37] Henry A. Kissinger, “The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction.” Foreign Affairs 80, no. 4 (2001): 86–96.

[38] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 3: Realism Continued Lecture Notes,” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[39] John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions.” International Security 19, no. 3 (1994): 5–49.

[40] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 8: International Institutions Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[41] Dr. Thibaud Henin, and Concordia University, “Week 7: The European Union Lecture Notes” (Introduction to International           Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021).

[42] Barnett, Michael, and Martha Finnemore. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations.” International          Organization 53, no. 4 (1999): 699–732.

[43] Alexander Wendt. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 46,        no. 2 (1992): 391–425.

[44] Barnett, Michael, and Martha Finnemore. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations.” International          Organization 53, no. 4 (1999): 699–732.

[45] Ann J. Tickner, “You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements between Feminists and Ir Theorists.” International Studies     Quarterly 41, no. 4 (1997): 611–32.

[46] Tickner, “You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements between Feminists and Ir Theorists.” 611–32.

Bibliography

  • Barnett, Michael, and Martha Finnemore. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International    Organizations.” International Organization 53, no. 4 (1999): 699–732.
  • Fierke, Karin M. “Constructivism.” in International Relations Theories: discipline and diversity (2007): 166-      184.
  • Henin, Thibaud and Concordia University, “Theories Framework,” Introduction to International    Relations,        Montreal: Concordia University, 2021.
  • Henin, Thibaud and Concordia University, “Week 3: Realism Continued Lecture Notes,” Introduction to           International Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021
  • Henin, Thibaud and Concordia University, “Week 4: Liberalism Lecture Notes” Introduction to International   Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021.
  • Henin, Thibaud and Concordia University, “Week 5: Constructivism Lecture Notes” Introduction to            International Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021.
  • Henin, Thibaud and Concordia University, “Week 6: Nuclear Weapons Lecture Notes” Introduction to            International    Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021.
  • Henin, Thibaud and Concordia University, “Week 7: The European Union Lecture Notes” Introduction to            International Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021.
  • Henin, Thibaud and Concordia University, “Week 8: International Institutions Lecture Notes” Introduction    to International Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021.
  • Henin, Thibaud and Concordia University, “Week 9: Normative Theories Lecture Notes” Introduction to            International Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021.
  • Henin, Thibaud and Concordia University, “Week 10: Human Rights and Justice Lecture Notes”            Introduction    to International Relations, Montreal: Concordia University, 2021.
  • Jervis, Robert. “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma.” World Politics 30, no. 2 (1978): 167–214.
  • Kissinger, Henry A. “The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction.” Foreign Affairs 80, no. 4 (2001): 86–96.
  • Keohane, Robert O. “International Institutions: Can Interdependence Work?” Foreign Policy 110, no. 110     (1998): 82–194.
  • Mearsheimer, John J. “The False Promise of International Institutions.” International Security 19, no. 3 (1994):       5–49.
  • Mearsheimer, John J. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power,” from The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), pp. 29-54.
  • Mutua, Makau. “Articles – Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard        International Law Journal 42, no. 1 (2001): 201.
  • Neumayer, Eric. “Do International Human Rights Treaties Improve Respect for Human Rights?” The Journal of         Conflict Resolution 49, no. 6 (2005): 925–53.
  • Oye, Kenneth A. “Explaining Cooperation Under Anarchy: Hypotheses and Strategies.” World Politics 38, no.     1 (1985): 1–24.
  • Tannenwald, Nina. “Stigmatizing the Bomb: Origins of the Nuclear Taboo.” International Security 29, no. 4          (2005): 5–49.
  • Simmons, Beth A. “The Future of the Human Rights Movement.” Ethics & International Affairs 28, no. 2                       (2014): 183–96.
  • Tickner, J. Ann. “You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements between Feminists and Ir          Theorists.” International Studies Quarterly 41, no. 4 (1997): 611–32.
  • Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.”          International   Organization 46, no. 2 (1992): 391–425.

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About the Author(s)

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Hurain Sheikh is a Pakistan-born Canadian. She has international work experience in West Canada, Dubai, and Islamabad. She is currently refining her experience by pursuing a degree in political science.

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