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Realism: Human Rights Foe?

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This is an excerpt from Realism in Practice: An Appraisal. An E-IR Edited Collection.
Available worldwide in paperback on Amazon (UK, USA, Ca, Ger, Fra), in all good book stores, and via a free PDF download.

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This chapter appraises Realism from a human rights perspective. The first section introduces the conventional view according to which realism, with its focus on the state, material power and international anarchy, would dismiss the idea that human rights could matter at all in global politics. The second section provides an alternative perspective. There are at least three ways in which human rights can survive and indeed flourish in a world guided by classical realist parameters. I contend, first, that realism creates the space for a political critique of international law, which helps us understand the political reasons why certain claims get framed in the language of human rights law. Secondly, realism advises restraint in the use of military force, leading potentially to better human rights outcomes. Finally, realism can also allow us to theorise about a certain idea of order guided by international rules defined by states themselves.

Common Wisdom: Realism vs. Human Rights

Realism attempts to explain the satisfaction of predetermined national interests in an anarchic world based on the autonomy of politics and from a consequentialist ethical perspective. To put it another way, for realists the state has a unitary character, politics and ethics belong to different realms, and whether an act is right or wrong depends on the result of the act itself. Understood as such, realism is frequently perceived as hardly compatible with a genuine moral commitment to normative positions as those reflected in the idea of human rights.

In general, realists are strongly sceptical about international law (Morgenthau 1940; Krasner 2002), and about the international proclamation of one ‘moral code’ over potentially conflicting others (Morgenthau 1948). In their view, it is unwise to judge other states’ actions from a moral perspective (Morgenthau 1979; Kennan 1985). States would be reluctant to accuse each other of human rights violations because they could be accused of the same thing in reciprocity, and their sovereignty would be undermined as a result (Krasner 1993, 164).

For realists, normative values and international regimes do not have power in themselves. The proclamation of human rights lacks analytical or explanatory value to account for state action. Hence, international human rights law (IHRL) does not deserve much attention. After all, IHRL is an international regime made of normative values. An international regime matters only insofar as it reflects the pre-existing ‘distribution of power in the world’ (Mearsheimer 1994/95, 7), and norms get subsumed ‘in the material structure of the international system’ (Mearsheimer 1995, 91). In other words, for realists, either the international human rights regime does not make a difference, so states will not be really bothered about it; or it does make a difference, but only as one more tool at the hands of the strong to impose their hegemonic power over the weak.

Realism is present among legal scholars. For legal realists, the proclamation of human rights in international law has very little connection with the actual improvement of human rights around the world, which has more to do with more interdependent trade relations and with the end of the Cold War. It is true that liberal democracies keep drafting, signing and ratifying human rights treaties, but in their opinion, this is only because they can do so at a very little cost, and the opposite would make them look like ugly outliers, since most other countries would not disembark from the international human rights regime (Goldsmith and Posner 2005, ch. 4; Posner 2014).

Realist scepticism towards the international proclamation of human rights has also reached the shores of scholars sympathetic to the idea of human rights, for whom realism would not have much to offer. For Michael Freeman (2002, 131), for example, ‘realism can explain the neglect of human rights by states, but it can explain neither the introduction nor the increasing influence of human rights in international relations’. And Landman (2006, 44) writes that under realism states only allow human rights norms to emerge and develop ‘to gain short-term benefit and raise international legitimacy while counting on weak sanctions and largely unenforceable legal obligations’.

With sporadic exceptions (like Schulz 2001 and Mahanty 2013), for most human rights academics and practitioners realism remains anathema and realists are seen as intellectual adversaries.

An Alternative View: Three Ways in Which Human Rights Could Engage with Realism

The narrative above remains the general view about realist thinking on human rights in global politics. This view is very much spread within and beyond realism. Yet, I believe an alternative realist reading of human rights is possible, particularly within the more classical and pre-Waltzian realism (before the 1970s), less constrained by the international structure and more interested in counter-arguing what was seen as reckless idealism.

The dialogue is not only possible with authors long gone, like E. H. Carr, who adopted an ambivalent position about the marriage between ideals and power: ‘The characteristic vice of the utopian is naivety; of the realist, sterility’ (Carr 2001, 12). Well-known contemporary realists have also made the case, albeit feebly, to let human rights into the equation of hard politics. From the United States, both John Mearsheimer (2014) and Stephen Walt (2016) have sustained that abuses committed by American forces abroad pose a serious risk to national security, and that the best strategy to promote democracy and human rights abroad is to do a better job at protecting them at home.

Realism and human rights stem from very different starting points, but they do not necessarily speak untranslatable languages. Their respective positions and agendas are not intrinsically irreconcilable. The next paragraphs will give examples in three areas where human rights analysis and advocacy could benefit from some realist thinking.

Unravelling the Politics behind International Law

Liberals assume that the legal system regulates behaviour within the political system as a whole. This premise is not shared by one of the most influential legal realists of the 20th century, Carl Schmitt. Realism reminds us that the legal and the political spheres do not match inside out.

Without a doubt, Schmitt’s anti-Semitism and proactive support of the Nazi regime make him an unlikely reference in any paper on human rights. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Schmitt’s representation of sovereignty as the power to decide over the confines of the rule and the exception is particularly enlightening to understand the retrogression of human rights during the so-called War on Terror (see Agamben 2005). At the very least, Schmitt should be read by human rights defenders to get a grip of the discourse that rapidly spread throughout Western countries after September 2001. This discourse is still very vivid today, and within it some have justified the use of torture against presumed terrorists, advocated the restriction of the freedom of movement of foreigners, and came up with a new category of fighter, the so-called........

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