The Individual in an Obsolete International Order

By Se Jeong Park 

The Universal of Human Rights (UDHR) is hailed as a major achievement of the United Nations in international law. However, its actual impact in international politics is rather questionable. Notably, the Declaration envisioned a universal basis for human rights, but there are marked differences in the applications of these rights across nations. The disjunction between vision and reality is tied to the continued vulnerability of the individual in a state-centric international order.

John Peters Humphrey perceives several factors that stunt progress for universal human rights. Namely, Humphrey problematizes the centrality of the state in determining international decisions, for the state often works against the individual for national security. In his speech “Three Parents of an Obsolete International Order,” given at Tufts University, Massachusetts in 1989, Humphrey discusses weaknesses of the international system in order to inspire his audience to fix what he perceives as an obsolete international system. Humphrey argues that the international system is obsolete because its traditional state-centered approach counters the advancement of universal human rights. Humphrey sees in universal human rights the potential to create global peace. All states are composed of individuals; therefore, by the creation of a universal legal code applied equally to all individuals, all states would be governed by the same unifying law. Ultimately, Humphrey highlights the value of restructuring the international order by strengthening international law, a change that can happen when the focus of the international system is shifted from the state towards the individual.

Humphrey identifies three factors – the parents – that engender state sovereignty at the expense of the individual. The first – absence of the individual at the international level – is the most problematic because it simply denies the individual a “legal personality” within the international order. To have a legal personality is to have rights and duties under the legal system. It therefore follows that the lack of a legal personality implies no rights under the law.[1] Certainly, international law applies across all states, and the UDHR embodies universal rights extending to all individuals. International legislation, even as customary laws such as the Declaration, affects individuals. Nevertheless, the effect of international law on the individual is indirect, for an individual’s right is contingent on the intermediary interpretation of the law by the state. In other words, individuals, though proclaimed to have rights enumerated in the Declaration, are de facto denied direct obtainment of their rights.

The second parent – unequal representation of individuals across states – further highlights the obstruction of individual rights by the state. “Sovereign equality of states” gives equal weight to all states, yet states are not all equal in size and population. Consequently, disparities arise in the representation of individuals at the international level according to their citizenship, nationality, residence. In other words, a person of one state is not considered on the same basis as a person from another state, is granted different rights even though the same legislative document is used.[2]

The third parent – collective responsibility – also works against a person’s individuality. States are the most basic unit of actors in international politics[3]; states are led by a select group of elites. Regardless, responsibility for state actions are held against the people of that state as a collective identity. As such, not only is a person deprived of her own individual character, but she shares liability for actions and decisions in which she had no input. Individuals, at the international level, do not stand on their own; they are not perceived as individuals but rather as members of states.

While exposing flaws in the international order, Humphrey does not give real solutions to the problems he raises.[4] However, this speech embodies Humphrey’s vision for the future of human rights and international law. Humphrey recognises the progress represented by the codification of universal rights in the Declaration.[5] However, Humphrey cautions against a uniquely celebratory view of the Declaration as the scope and extent of its influence have been limited. The current international order supports state interests and sovereignty, both of which curtail achievement of individual, universal human rights. Humphrey therefore re-emphasises the centrality of the individual under international law and when constructing an international order supportive the Declaration’s visions for universal bases of human rights.

[1] Rosalyn Higgins, “Conceptual Thinking about the Individual in International Law,” British Journal of International Studies 4, no. 1 (1978), 1-2.

[2] It is important to keep in mind that Humphrey’s fundamental assumption is that all humans are born equal and are inherently endowed equal rights as enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[3] John Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Miss the Cold War,” Atlantic Monthly, August 1990 (1990), 42.

[4] “Adequate implementation measures” is the only, generic solution Humphrey offers. Humphrey also admits that he does not know how the problems in the international order can be overcome. He just knows that they need to be addressed and solved.

[5] It is noteworthy that the doctrine of “universal jurisprudence” emerged shortly after, as a reaction to authoritarian regimes in Latin America and following the fall of the Soviet bloc. While there may not have been a direct causation between the two, Humphrey’s concerns were not isolated, and were important in consideration of international law.


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