The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 was crafted to preserve the great powers at the time so that they could serve their self-interest in staying in their prime position at the top of the global pyramid. It left the contemporary global system being a socially constructed reality which does not reflect the inherent resemblance of all nations as being made up of human beings. The post-colonial reality allows that hierarchy to continue with Western governments benefiting from centuries of seizures of territory and resources and its legacy to persist through ethnic conflict derived from colonially-imposed borders and unequal exploitative relationships. It is this legacy which creates the imperative for the notion of universal human rights to be an overriding issue of global politics.

Most wars now occur in the Global South, a circumstance which is derived from their colonial origins. The Global South has the highest number of states with the largest populations on the least income and with the most unstable governments. These factors lead to failed states which lead to mass emigrations of refugees, disease and famine. The armed conflict which happens within these failed states happens more frequently than armed conflict between states with 2009 seeing 36 armed intrastate conflicts in 26 locations. These civil wars have a high cost of life, have child soldiers as participants and perpetrate genocide, an example being the slaughter of eight hundred thousand Tutsi and moderate Hutu people during a few weeks in Rwanda.

Under current international law state sovereignty is supreme, meaning that no authority is above the state. In fact international law actually protects a state by giving it ‘a complete freedom of action to do whatever it takes to preserve its sovereign independence’. Even though in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by many states to protect individuals, states still have the right to perform within their territories in any which way they choose. Up until 1952, ‘a citizen was not protected against the state’s abuse of human rights or crimes against humanity’. International law, being fashioned by realist thinkers, does not protect humans but protects the instrument of humans being the state. This goes against liberalist thinking of not using humans as a means to an end.   

This liberal view that the individual is the seat of moral value is fundamental to the notion of universal human rights. One of the corollary concepts of liberal theory stresses the unity of humankind, the importance of the dignity and equality of individuals, and the need for the promotion of human rights and liberty. Rather than being a ‘subject’ of the state, the general consensus in contemporary global politics is that people are important and have worth and therefore ethical and moral issues belong in the realm of international relations. However, the accuracy remains of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s observation that ‘man is born free, and everywhere is in chains’. Globally, a select few of the total population are prospering while there are many who can barely survive.

Constructivists make humans the primary level of analysis, with human ideas defining the identities that impart meaning to the behaviour of others. This contemporary thinking has shaped a consensus that claims that all humans have the same moral status and that ‘to accept human rights [is to make on the state] the moral demand to respect the life, integrity, well-being and flourishing of…all human beings’. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted many civil and political rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of thought and expression, the right to participate in government, and indispensable social and economic rights. The Declaration also asserts that ‘if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law’. This is the essential argument of why human rights are integral to global politics.  

Although the Declaration and the further multilateral treaties which enumerate these rights are legally binding on states, there have been many who have not ratified these agreements or have objected to specific provisions. For instance, the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with reservations, but did not ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Considering that the US is the most powerful state in the liberal democratic world, this is an indictment against the moral values purported to be so important to this global group. Human rights abuses continue with 350 million indigenous peoples being without a homeland or political representation and subject to persecution and genocide; with women in the world continuing to be disadvantaged in comparison to men; with up to 4 million people subjected to slavery and human-trafficking; and with children being subjected to neglect and abuse through slavery, hunger, conscription and sexual exploitation.

With so many people of the world being the target of oppression and violence by states, the global community is morally challenged as to whether international treaties can go on being blatantly disregarded by the states that have ratified them or have some consensus with them. In principle, international law now provides protections for all people everywhere to live in freedom and security. So that these protections can finally apply to all people, traditional notions of sovereignty must be transcended. Global politics must now recognise and respect these laws so that the assertion of the Declaration of common interests of all citizens in all states is recognized and upheld.