The Guardian recently published an essay by the American legal scholar Eric Posner on the failure of human rights to live up to its utopic promise. Posner flails at the top-down approach the UN human rights system has propagated around the world, despite the ambiguities and contradictions that the complex of human rights laws are stricken with. He concludes his essay with a plea for a new approach, thus:
It is time to start over with an approach to promoting wellbeing in foreign countries that is empirical rather than ideological. Human rights advocates can learn a lot from the experiences of development economists – not only about the flaws of top-down, coercive styles of forcing people living in other countries to be free, but about how one can actually help those people if one really wants to. Wealthy countries can and should provide foreign aid to developing countries, but with the understanding that helping other countries is not the same as forcing them to adopt western institutions, modes of governance, dispute-resolution systems and rights. Helping other countries means giving them cash, technical assistance and credit where there is reason to believe that these forms of aid will raise the living standards of the poorest people. Resources currently used in fruitless efforts to compel foreign countries to comply with the byzantine, amorphous treaty regime would be better used in this way.
Those familiar with contemporary discussions of the role of international law in the promotion of democratic ideas will recognize many valid concerns in Posner’s essay. Indeed, democratic theory in international law — by extension includes human rights theory — has often drawn criticisms that it is fundamentally a Western, liberal democratic imposition. For example, the Finnish scholar Martii Koskenniemi rejects the universal claim of international law (specifically democratic theory) as rooted in a European tradition and should not and could not speak for humanity.
He warns that such a tradition of liberal democracy may yet end up as another hegemonic imposition on non-Western states, reminding us of his arguments in his book the Gentler Civilizer of Nations about the international lawyers of an earlier era who thought none of the contradictions that came with assigning to international law a civilizing task and at the same time using it as justification for colonialism:
As international lawyers, the only arguments open to us are those provided by our tradition: jus cogens, obligations erga omnes, and all the legal paraphernalia produced by treaties, customs, international institutions. They do not automatically express anything universal: indeed, more often than not they are used as instruments in hegemonic struggles. As soon as we lose sight of this, they turn into kitsch.
For Koskenniemi, there is nothing special about the modern state, or its democratic aspirations. Yet at the same time, he is not about to celebrate the indigenous that easily either. Indeed, Koskenniemi’s has remarked that : the state can either be used for good or bad. But towards the end of his book’s chapter on sovereignty and international law’s supposed civilizing mission, he says that while indeed it may often be suggested from history that “it is better to live in a political society whose administrators speak our language, share our rituals and know our ways of life,” he quickly adds that “there is no magic” about these relationships. Lest we forget, “communities that are closed to outsiders will rot from the inside.”
For me, this somehow stresses Dooyeweerd’s point first of all about the nature of the state as a differentiated public legal community.
Koskenniemi and all his kindred spirits are correct in locating ideas of democracy in the Western tradition. Dooyeweerd’s own account of the development of the theory of the state in its different stages draw from the Western, if largely European experience (with certain Dutch emphases).
A differentiated society, in Dooyeweerd’s systematic philosophy, could only arise from the disclosure of societal structural principles by human positivation. It is a process that is distinctive for its historical embedded-ness. A society could be closed, so that differentiation could not take place. (Koskenniemi seems to realize this as he remarks about the decline communities slide into if they remain in autarkic existence. For all his hesitations, Koskenniemi has implicitly cast his lot with the comfortable choice, that is, his own Western tradition, warts and all. )
We must not lose sight of Dooyeweerd’s argument from history and the directionality of positivations.
The development of a public legal community is so closely bound up with societal differentiation itself that we cannot measure the rest of the world’s pace against the Western experience (or let alone consider the tragic injustices that most of them have suffered in the era of colonization). Skillen had long ago noted that human rights “are tied in with the very meaning of justice and injustice in states and thus cannot be protected or enhanced in abstraction from actual state and interstate structures.”
In other words, if the very character of the sovereign state is part of the problem, every effort to advance human rights without changing the function and identity of states will lead to failure.
There then, is a certain realism to Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state: differentiation is an historical process that demands public commitment. At the same time we must also realize that Dooyeweerd’s theory of differentiation also shines through with a fundamental Christian conviction about the direction societal structures may take: differentiation by itself is not to be equated with development. An integral part of the state’s historical task of disclosure is what the kindred philosopher and economist Bob Goudzwaard has long called the “simultaneous realization of norms,” following his mentor, Dr. T.P. van der Kooy.
This means that the realization of one norm cannot be separated from the others. It also means that the realization of one norm is dependent on those of others. Economic development cannot be pursued for its own sake, independently of the others. The state will have to consider as well considerations of justice and mercy, for example. (For those interested, Goudzwaard discusses the need to simultaneously disclose economic norms with others in his first full-length work, a critique of the Western ideology of progress as embodied in Capitalism, here).
Perhaps, this is Dooyeweerd’s answer to Koskenniemi’s worries that international law is turning into kitsch, (by which he means an imperialistic and racist instrumentalism that looks at the Other as the savage, and the Western self as the epitome of human rights and civilization).
And this does not in any way let off the hook the formers of the cultural way of being from the historical task of building a public legal community. They can only hold it off at the risk of grave injustices to their own constituencies.
The normative view of the state is in fact a strong critique of the supposedly “civilizing” purpose of colonialism. The continuum between power and justice found in Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state suggests that much. No political project can disregard the requirements of justice without risking its adverse consequences. While power is foundational to the state – the monopoly of the sword – it simply cannot survive on that count alone. Power must reach, or anticipate, justice. Power must open up to, and be deepened by, justice.
*human rights themed image taken from the oxfam website.