Human Rights and the Liberal Order

Human Rights and the Liberal Order

December 10 is Human Rights Day. On this day, in 1948, the new United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Like the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide the day before, the adoption of the Universal Declaration marked a seminal moment in the historical development of the idea as well as the actual attainment of human rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish language version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Accessed at

The creation of the Universal Declaration in many ways emphasized the centrality of liberalism to the post-WWII order as well as the ascendance of the United States of America in its creation and operation. With respect to the latter point, the Declaration is notably influenced in name and philosophical substance by the Declaration of Independence of the U.S. It marked, in many ways the geographical extension of the ideas that the Declaration contained. There is also little doubt that its inclusion in the postwar order was consistent with the vision of the United States in terms of its wartime objectives, as expressed in President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech and the Atlantic Charter, which Roosevelt signed with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941. Further, the Human Rights Commission, which authored the Universal Declaration was chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Accessed at

While the power disparities at the end of the Second World War virtually insured that the U.S. would have a decisive impact on the design of the new order that emerged, the type of order that did was also of historic importance. The locking in of rules through more constitutional-type instruments meant that the U.S. had to constrain itself to a greater extent than it could by acting unilaterally. By doing so, it extended its generally preferred order beyond the point in time when it could logically account for half of the world’s GDP, as it did at the end of the war (Ikenberry, 2001). Beyond this purely interest-based argument though, the identity of the United States is inextricably linked to the liberal thinking that arose out of the Enlightenment period. The ideas that America was founded upon were liberal, and infused with the idea of human rights. It is not coincidence then, that the ideational basis for the international order it led the way in creating was also liberalism.

Dr. Derrick Frazier and I define international order as “the governing arrangements among the units of a system, including their rules, principles, and institutions, which are designed to make interactions predictable and to sustain the goals and values that are collectively salient.” Our definition incorporates the previous definitions by G. John Ikenberry and Hedley Bull and I will return to why in depth in another piece. For present purposes, two points are especially relevant.

First, the International Human Rights Regime (the collection of international laws and their organizational components) are an example of the formal institutional dimensions of the current international order. The core of this regime is often referred to as the International Bill of Rights, which is made up of three human rights agreements:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)

The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966)

That international rules were created about something that had been viewed previously as being primarily within the sovereign prerogative of the state was historic. In an instrumental sense, the formalization and codification of these rules was a liberal enterprise.

That human rights were understood to be:

(1) equal (no human being has more claim to any human right than any other human being),

(2) inalienable (no political authority – not even the state – can deny a human being the enjoyment of these rights), and

(3) universal (these are natural rights, and we have them by the very fact that we are human beings),

was indicative of the second point. The ideas that shaped goals and values reflected in the international human rights regime are distinctly liberal. I do not agree with the argument that they are only liberal/”Western” and that they are therefore inconsistent with “non-Western” cultures. I also recognize that many of the rights enshrined within the International Bill of Rights (particularly those spelled out in the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights) were more influenced by socialism and socio-cultural concerns of post-colonial states.


That said, the idea that the protection of the human rights of individuals is a guaranteed component of any social contract between state and society is the essence of liberalism. Liberalism recognizes that the state is the single greatest threat to an individual’s liberty. Despite the fact that the state provides security against Thomas Hobbe’s “nasty, brutish, and short” life in the hypothetical state of nature, there are certain guarantees to the individual that cannot be abridged by the state. Moreover, the Preamble of the Universal Declaration recognizes that the denial of human rights reduces peace and security in a way that transcends political borders. It is thus the dignity and physical integrity of individuals who might be abused by the state as well as the international effects of this abuse that motivate the human rights regime. Given the hyper-authoritarianism of and atrocities committed by the Axis Powers in the 1930s and 1940s, it is no wonder that the moment had come for these principles to be accepted at the international level.

The development of the international human rights regime was one of the great accomplishments of the Twentieth Century. It extended recognition of rights to every human being on the planet, and acquired acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the idea of human rights from every state in the international system. Much work remains to be done in insuring that these rights are protected and enjoyed in reality. The challenges confronting its core principals today are immense.

December 10 though, reflects a moment in history in which these principals were advanced, and that is worthy of recognition. Happy Human Rights Day!


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