6.3.7  Political Legitimacy as Measured by Human Rights            

(The latest version of this page is at Pattern Descriptions.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/637.htm)

Beetham's model ( of legitimacy provides a basis for people to assess their own political system and the behaviour of their politicians, but countries do not exist in isolation – particularly nowadays.  External perspectives help to improve the quality of debate and may provide an external measure by which to assess legitimacy at level 2 of Beetham's model: showing that a country’s governance conforms to “beliefs shared” by other countries.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (the UDHR: Appendix 1) was negotiated after the Second World War, to set governance standards and to protect people from politicians who abuse their powers.  It was adopted by the UN General Assembly, with 48 countries voting for it and 8 abstentions.[1]  The UDHR is non-binding, except for countries that have placed themselves under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (, but it has great legitimacy as what Adam Smith referred to as an “impartial spectator” for any country reviewing its governance.[2]  Instead of people, for example, asking themselves why they would submit to principles defined by other countries, they should ask themselves why they would allow their governance to fall short of what has been agreed as best practice.  People are entitled to think that there is no obvious reason why any government cannot meet most of the requirements of the UDHR – although there are exceptions: socio-economic rights depend upon affordability; and authoritarian governments don't comply with Article 21.3 (elections).

A country’s initial decision to incorporate human rights in the law is political but it is then difficult for any subsequent political administration to breach them or change them.  The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,[3] for example, is binding on EU countries and is a test for new applicants.  The American Constitution is another example which offers considerable protection to its citizens; it is enforced by the Supreme Court, which acts as a constraint upon politicians.  Every country has some human rights enshrined in law, even if it does not refer to them as such, and some of these rights are political in nature.  They protect individuals from the abuse of power by other people and by the government (though this guarantee is of little value if the legal system is defective).  People can see whether their political and legal systems meet the standards applied in other countries by comparing the human rights in their own countries against the international standard set by the UDHR.

Even without incorporation into the law, international human rights are a mechanism for putting pressure on national politicians.  Concern about human-rights abuses at the Guantánamo Bay detention centre for terrorists led to international protests which put pressure on the American government to close it.[4]

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[1] The following countries voted in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Thailand, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.  This information was retrieved from Wikipedia in October 2010; Wikipedia quoted its source as the Yearbook of the United Nations 1948–1949 p 535.

[2] Adam Smith introduced 'the impartial spectator' in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, III, i, 2:

“We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation, and condemn it.”

This text was available in May 2014 at http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smMS.html.

Amartya Sen quotes Smith in chapter 6 of The Idea of Justice when making the argument for countries to take account of views from outside their own borders.  Sen makes the distinction between internal legitimacy, as being negotiated, and external legitimacy as being "impartial", in his quest for "The Idea of Justice".

[3] The text of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union was available in May 2014 at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/charter/pdf/text_en.pdf.

[4] On 12 January 2012 the Washington Post published an article entitled Protesters condemn Guantánamo Bay on 10th anniversary with march from White House, which referred to “a group of hundreds of human rights activists” as “one of several demonstrations around the world”; it was available in May 2014 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/protesters-condemn-guantanamo-bay-on-10th-anniversary-with-march-from-white-house/2012/01/11/gIQAVYIDsP_story.html.