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  • A Critique of Social Approaches to Human Rights
  • Neil Stammers (bio)

I. Introduction

Concepts and ideas of natural and human rights can be seen as playing a highly ambivalent socio-historical role in terms of challenging or sustaining particular forms of power. In an earlier paper, I examined liberal and Marxist approaches to human rights. 1 This paper will extend that analysis by critically examining what may be termed a social democratic approach to human rights and the extent to which it challenges or sustains economic and state power. This analysis is of particular importance, as advocates of such an approach would claim to transcend the limits of liberal and Marxist traditions in recognizing that both markets and states can threaten human rights. Indeed, in terms of the dominant western debate on human rights, some recent social democratic theorists have set an apparently radical agenda for reappraising human rights on a world scale.

This thesis adopts a social constructionist perspective, in that it begins with the proposition that ideas and practices concerning human rights are created by people in particular historical, social, and economic circumstances. Such an approach stands in stark contrast to the long established tradition in western political thought that seeks to ground the concept of natural or human rights in timeless and abstract universals such as natural law. A second assumption central to this paper is that—because power and power relations are a key aspect of, and embedded in, social relations—ideas and practices with respect to human rights can only be understood once their relation to particular forms and dimensions of power is fully grasped. The understanding of power employed here broadly follows that of [End Page 488] Lukes, 2 in that power is seen to be exercised both consciously, by individual and collective social actors, and structurally through the patterning of social systems. 3

To talk of a social democratic approach to human rights presupposes a link to those political traditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such traditions accept that gross inequalities generated by a capitalist market economy should be curbed, and could be curbed through the intervention of a liberal democratic state. Such an approach is most clearly associated with the reformist socialist current of the nineteenth century that led to the formation of the European social democratic parties. It can also be seen as a product of a “developmental” or “radicalized” strand of liberal thought that—in the twentieth century—has been linked to the work of Keynes and Beveridge in Britain and the New Deal in the United States. Whether either claim to ancestry is accurate is not the concern of this paper, although the question does bear on a later consideration of the extent to which a social democratic approach to human rights challenges or sustains particular forms of power relations. Here the term “social democratic” encompasses both reformist socialist and radicalized liberal currents of thought. The term “liberal” denotes the classical liberal tradition and what is often referred to nowadays as neoliberalism.

Finally, this paper does not attempt to assess the social democratic intellectual tradition as such. Rather, it examines a particular construction of the concept of human rights. To focus the discussion I draw on recent work by Jack Donnelly, Henry Shue and the late John Vincent. 4 The importance of their work has been widely acknowledged, perhaps because all three have sought to straddle the boundary between theoretical analysis and practical prescription. While Donnelly has explicitly accepted the term “social-democratic” to describe his approach, neither Shue nor Vincent expressly do so. Nevertheless, there are key commonalities that unite their work and justify the use of the term when describing all three. This paper also identifies an important divergence which leads to quite different proposals as to how human rights should be guaranteed. Because a key distinguishing feature of the social democratic approach within the wider western debate on human rights is that it seeks to validate some form of economic and social rights, much of the discussion herein relates to this distinction and to the issue of economic power. [End Page 489]

What follows is split into four main sections: The first section locates the...

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