Who Critiques Human Rights Interventions?

The application of human rights aspirations, in the policy practice of NGOs, the foreign policy of states and regional institutions, from the European Union to Nato, and in the activities of the UN, has not been without its detractors. Commentators across the board, from academics to journalists, state officials and NGO practitioners, have raised a large body of criticism.

This criticism has originated largely within the human rights discourse itself. The policy-makers and institutional actors have been criticised for failing to act on behalf of human rights in some areas of the world, or when they have acted, have been criticised for being too slow to respond or for merely taking half measures. Much of this criticism has also been focused on the low level of institutional change in the international sphere, for example: the UN Security Council composition and power of veto; UN Charter restrictions on international intervention; the slow development of the International Criminal Court; the lack of institutional integration of NGOs in international decision-making; and the remaining outdated privileges of state sovereignty.

As Alex de Waal has noted, ‘to date most sociological study of humanitarian action implicitly accepts the axioms of the humanitarian international’. Statements by human rights NGOs, states and international institutions acting in the name of human rights are often taken at face value as if the nobility of aim confers immunity from sociological analysis or political critique. Waal sums up the strength of consensus by analogy: ‘It is as though the sociological study of the church were undertaken by committed Christians only: criticism would be solely within the context of advancing the faith itself.’

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2006), pp. 11-12

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