The diplomat versus the judicial romantic

Human Rights in International Relations
November 24, 2000

The study of international relations has opened a space for its subject by distinguishing itself from the old discipline of international law. Against the emphasis that international jurists place on the "hard" law developed by court decisions, students of international relations pride themselves on being "realists", concerned only with the realities of power and the art of the possible.

David Forsythe has written a book for students of international relations, introducing the main agencies that take part in the international politics of human rights. Each chapter concludes with a reading list that contains useful brief summaries of the works cited and a list of discussion questions.

Its clarity and its anti-legalist approach will appeal to undergraduate students. Yet this approach is too sceptical about the most recent developments in the area of international human rights. After all, the most interesting developments of the past decade were arguably the setting up of international criminal courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the creation of a permanent international criminal court and the arrest of Chile’s General Pinochet in London. All these developments are dismissed as expressions of "judicial romanticism". In the author’s view, the romantic liberal takes human rights too seriously and wrongly expects consistency in the application o f human rights standards. Forsythe supports instead a pragmatic "tolerance of inconsistency": "Judicial romanticism is not an adequate policy; it is a moral posture."

Forsythe is careful to distinguish his position from Henry Kissinger’s fascination with geopolitical interests and realpolitik . He positions himself somewhere between the liberal pole and the realist positions, under the banner of "neo-liberalism". He supports human rights values, but he thinks that diplomatic pressures are better than judicial methods.

Diplomacy, however, raises at least as many problems as the decisions of courts preferred by liberals. For example, much has recently been written about the many ways in which interventions by human rights groups have produced more harm than good and have often become part of the problem rather than a solution. Even the work of the Red Cross has produced controversy and divisions in the human rights lobby. Forsythe overlooks these important analyses, and he supports truth commissions (as preferable to criminal courts) uncritically, ignoring important analyses of the official staging of collective memory.

A neo-liberal position of this sort is too weak when it confronts the conservative onslaught against international human rights. Forsythe has no doubts that Pinochet could be tried in Spain without putting Chilean democracy at risk, but his concessions to the realists seriously weaken his arguments supporting a trial. Human rights matters are matters of principle, and it is important to present them as such. Otherwise, criticism becomes impossible. Submitting human rights to the calculations of international bureaucrats and diplomats runs the risk of buying into a world view that often justifies the very violations of human rights that "judicial romanticism" hopes to deter.

Rolando Gaete is reader in socio-legal studies, South Bank University.


Human Rights in International Relations

Author - David P. Forsythe
ISBN - 0 521 62000 7 and 62999 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £32.50 and £12.95
Pages - 247

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