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Prudence and principle in international society: reflections on Vincent's approach to human rights



    1. Woodrow Wilson Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University.
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    • I would like to thank Tim Dunne, Christopher Hill, Hidemi Suganami, William Wallace and Nicholas Wheeler for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. I am also grateful, for criticisms and suggestions, to the participants at the study group on Vincent's analysis of human rights held at Chatham House on 25 May 2011.


John Vincent's Human rights and International Relations argued for embedding the right to be free from starvation in the international society of states. Principle and prudence were combined in a distinctive English School analysis of the universal human rights culture. Vincent argued that the entitlement to be free from the tyranny of starvation and malnutrition was one principle on which most societies could agree despite their profound ideological differences. Other conceptions of human rights, including western liberal doctrines of individual freedom, had the potential to create major divisions within international society, particularly when linked with a doctrine of humanitarian intervention. More recent approaches to world poverty raise large questions about whether Vincent succeeded in attempting to marry prudence in preserving an international order that remains anchored in state sovereignty with a principled commitment to ending starvation. Important issues also arise about how to build on his reflections on the prospects for a global ‘civilizing process’ that bridges cultural and political differences in the first universal society of states.