Human Rights and the Question of Democratization: Some Personal Reflections

By Tejas Parasher

Political Science, Philosophy, and Methodology

Few narratives have been as central to international politics since the early 1990s as the idea that there is a measurable correlation between ‘human rights’ and the political system of liberal democracy. If human rights principles aim at something like the sanctity and dignity of the individual person, then, the story generally goes, democratic government is a necessary condition for their realization. Institutionalized measures around physical security, civil liberties, the protection of property, and government accountability are the most effective mechanisms for consolidating human rights goals at the domestic level.

It is striking how deep-rooted this narrative is amongst both staunch advocates and some of the most strident critics of human rights. Its clearest instantiations are of course the doctrines of humanitarian intervention since the Balkan Wars and Responsibility to Protect (R2P) since 2005, both of which frame human rights missions in terms of political reform and democracy promotion. Humanitarian “conflict prevention” as defined by the UN Security Council in its Resolution 1674 (2006), for example, entails pre-emptive as well as post-conflict promotion of “economic growth, poverty eradication, sustainable development, national reconciliation, good governance, democracy, and the rule of law” within at-risk states.

In my own field of political theory, constitutional democracy and cosmopolitan human rights have been spoken of as a complementary binary for a number of decades. A central trope within liberal internationalism and democratic peace theory has long been that domestic constitutions based on political democracy are both conceptually and strategically conducive to compliance with the norms of international law and inter-state treaties. John Rawls’ The Law of Peoples (1993) arguably inaugurated this strand of thinking within contemporary ethical philosophy and international relations, with its famous assertion that politically liberal societies are the most consistent and reliable advocates of basic universal rights.

My research interest in human rights emerged from a general dissatisfaction with this story. It’s not that its details are necessarily wrong. Empirical work by Andrew Moravcsik and others has convincingly shown a broad affinity between democratic systems and at least minimal human rights compliance. Rather, as I began archival work last year for my dissertation on anti-imperial constitutional reform in South Asia, it became increasingly clear to me that the definition of ‘democracy’ operative in liberal philosophy, as a system characterized by accountable participatory government and the prioritization of individual security and liberty, could not help in writing a genuinely global history of human rights.

During the transition from imperial rule at the end of the 1940s through the early 1960s, those involved in drafting postcolonial constitutions viewed democratization as a process of economic transformation, of overcoming domestic and global hierarchies in resource distribution. When human rights were invoked it was often to buttress a set of institutions which could regulate and transform production and exchange. In the Indian case for instance, between 1946 and 1949 two key jurists, Benegal Narsing Rau and B.R. Ambedkar, separately argued that the schemes of human rights being debated in the UN General Assembly and proposed by international lawyers like Hersch Lauterpacht required, at the domestic level, redistribution and socialized ownership. What I’ve found remarkable in reviewing these materials from the late 1940s is how many of the same rights prioritized by liberal philosophers—such as equality before the law, anti-discrimination, eligibility for public office, etc.—were seen as mandating a socialist economy rather than an electoral democracy with extensive private autonomy. In the context of imperial rule and the specific hierarchies of Indian society, liberal models were discarded in favor of a state focused on economic transformation.

So what is at stake in re-animating this brief mid-century moment in South Asian politics now—or, indeed, in turning to other analogous moments like South Africa’s post-Apartheid constitution-making process between 1994 and 1996? There is much more here than simply an instance of a strategic appropriation of human rights language. As I have begun working through the archive, I’ve realized that it presents a powerful case for why contextualization along with a more internationalist historical framework matters to philosophical work in human rights. The disaggregation of liberal democracy and human rights in the 1940s occurred from an attentiveness to the particular demands of post-imperial sovereignty, which faced challenges different from those of postwar European states even if the norms of the emerging human rights system were universally applicable. Recognizing, as philosophers and political scientists, these histories of rights outside of postwar Western Europe and North America, shaped by critical attitudes towards political liberalism, pushes against assertions of liberal democratic legalities as both universally desirable and inherent to the human rights project.