The world turned upside down? Human rights and International Relations after 25 years



    1. Professor of Political Theory and International Relations at the University of St Andrews.
    Search for more papers by this author
    • This section of the current issue of International Affairs grew out of a discussion between Caroline Soper and me, noting both that John Vincent's book was now 25 years old and that it had been originally commissioned by Chatham House and published as a Chatham House book. We therefore thought there was some logic to International Affairs both looking back at that book and its influence and casting an eye on the present scene with the arguments of the book in mind. I am very grateful to Caroline for all her help with the section and with the study group on Vincent's analysis of human rights held at Chatham House on 25 May 2011; grateful also to my fellow contributors and to our discussants—Chris Brown, Başak Çali and Chandra Sriram—for agreeing to take part in the study group, leading to improvements in all the articles; and, of course, to all the staff at International Affairs for their organizational and administrative support. I would also like to thank many friends and colleagues for conversations and discussions (not always recent) which fed into this article: Liz Ashford, Charles Beitz, Dai Boucher, Tim Dunne, Patrick Hayden, Caroline Kennedy, Tony Lang, the late (and much lamented) Alan Milne, Onora O'Neill, Henry Shue, John Skorupski and Nicholas Wheeler—not forgetting some wonderful conversations, still fresh in the memory after 20 years, with John Vincent.


This article revisits the arguments of John Vincent's influential 1986 book, Human rights and International Relations and situates them against the context both of the debates of his own time and the debates of the early twenty-first century. Vincent's arguments are assessed and evaluated in their own terms and compared and contrasted with dominant positions today. The arguments are then assessed in the light of two leading critical perspectives on human rights before considering a final criticism of the possibility and desirability of the current human rights regime in International Relations.