6.3.7 Compliance with International Human Rights

Compliance with international human rights is a useful measure of good governance; breaches result in popular indignation

Beetham’s model  of legitimacy, as described above (,  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 another 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, see 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 “over 50 Member States participating …  with eight nations abstaining from the vote but none dissenting”.  The UDHR is not legally binding in international law, except for countries that have placed themselves under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (, but it has considerable moral authority (

Even without incorporation into the law, compliance with international human rights is a useful criterion for putting pressure on national politicians.  Concern about human-rights abuses led to international protests, as described in the Washington Post article: Protesters condemn Guantánamo Bay on 10th anniversary with march from White House.  This article referred to “a group of hundreds of human rights activists” as “one of several demonstrations around the world” to put pressure on the American government to close that US Government detention centre for terrorists.

The UDHR can also act as what Adam Smith referred to as an “impartial spectator” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, for any country reviewing its governance:

 “We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it.” [III, i, 2]

Amartya Sen quoted Smith in chapter 6 of his book, The Idea of Justice, when making the argument for countries to take account of views from outside their own borders.  Sen saw compliance with international human rights as an impartial measure of a government’s moral authority.

Instead of people 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 others see as best practice.  And there is no obvious reason why any government cannot meet most of the requirements of the UDHR – although socio-economic rights depend upon affordability, and authoritarian governments don’t comply with Article 21.3 (elections).

A country, or group of countries, can also decide to incorporate some human rights in its own laws (5.4.7).   The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, 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.  The decision to embody human rights in national laws is an endorsement of their legitimacy.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/637.htm.