In contrast to centuries of ethical reflection on Just War, the human community has only been delineating the moral implications of international human rights since the end of World War II. Following passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, states, intergovernmental organizations, regional associations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious leaders, corporations, and other international actors have worked resourcefully, and often against great odds, to establish conditions on the ground that would accomplish Article 28, which states: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Although skeptics question the power of such idealistic, even pious, language, the Universal Declaration has provided the ethical foundation for such movements as the struggle against apartheid, promotion of the rights of women and children, alleviation of poverty, improvements in health, repair of the ecosystem (e.g., control of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs), provision for refugees and internally displaced persons, and advocacy on behalf of “prisoners of conscience” (a term created by Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International).
If all human beings have the basic rights of life (including the rights to security and subsistence) and liberty, then these rights generate obligations. As Henry Shue argues, these obligations have three components: (1) not violating the rights of others, (2) protecting persons from rights violation, (3) and aiding those whose rights are violated.
When another state commits egregious human rights violations, are the United States and other nations obligated to act? If so, what are the sources, content, limits and extent of this obligation? How should a policy maker weigh competing priorities? Suppose the home state is not the perpetrator, but is nonetheless unable to act because it is poor (in resources or capacity), incompetent, failing or “failed”? When the survival of a population is at stake, because of starvation, natural disaster, pervasive violence or ecological collapse, to what extent is international society obliged to step in?
One way to think through international moral obligation regarding human rights is to try to identify which international actors are best positioned to carry out various dimensions of those obligations. Consider, for example, the plight of the refugee, a person wo has fled his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (the 1951 Refugee Convention). Which particular international actors should come to the aid of refugees? Which other international actors should we assign to prevent additional abuse and refugee outflows? Human Rights discourse insists on international obligations to defend the human rights of refugees and to ensure that they are not forcibly repatriated to the country from which they fled. That much is clear. But how best to do that is the stuff of politics and diplomacy. In a sense, calling on states to sort out such issues for the benefit of humankind is the “revolutionary demand” we find articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other major Human Rights texts.