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Exploring the human rights culture

27 May 2009

The limits of ethics in international relations book cover

The role of human rights in international relations is the topic of a major new publication from a University academic.

The Limits of Ethics in International Relations: Natural Law, Natural Rights & Human Rights in Transition by Professor David Boucher, Head of the School of European Studies, explores the history of thinking about human rights. The result of ten years of research, the text argues that far from being seen as universal and emancipatory, human rights have almost always privileged certain groups in relation to others.

For more than two thousand years Natural Law and Natural Rights, which invoke a higher authority than human will or social laws, were the lenses through which Europeans evaluated the rest of the world. Professor Boucher’s substantial research rejects the view that Natural Rights constituted a secularisation of Natural Law ideas and maintains that Natural Rights and Human Rights are far less closely related than is often asserted.

Professor Boucher said: "At a time when human rights have become the lingua franca of international statesmanship, and the human rights of soldiers on the battlefield have been acknowledged, it is timely to remind ourselves of where these ideas of human rights came from, and to what use they have been put.

"For most of the history of these universal standards the enjoyment of such rights has always been conditional, that is dependent on meeting the criteria of being fully human. In this respect these rights were always 'special' rights mostly restricted to adult white males.

"The importance of retrieving ideas of universal rights enables us to understand the process by which the contemporary human rights culture has evolved, and upon what fragile foundations it has been built."

Professor Boucher was awarded a Leverhulme Fellowship to complete his research for the book. The Limits of Ethics in International Relations is published by Oxford University Press this week.

Earlier this year, Professor Boucher’s Dylan and Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, an examination of how Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen transformed pop music into a literary form, was published for the first time in Serbian. It is joined by a recent Polish translation of his book Political Thinkers (with Professor Paul Kelly, London School of Economics), an introduction to the history of Western political thought, and a new expanded edition of The Political Art of Bob Dylan (with Professor Gary Browning, Oxford Brookes University).

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