Descartes: Summary of Some Major Points

Curtis Brown


1. Mind and body are separate substances. “Substance,” strictly speaking, for Descartes means “a thing existing in such a manner that it has need of no other thing in order to exist” (Principle LI, The Principles of Philosophy, trans. Anscombe and Geach). In this strict sense, according to Descartes, only God is really a substance. But in a derivative sense “created substances, whether corporeal or thinking, may be conceived under this common concept; for they are things which need only the concurrence of God in order to exist” (Principle LII, trans. Haldane and Ross). Descartes goes on to say that “there is always one principal property of substance which constitutes its nature and essence, and on which all the others depend. Thus extension in length, breadth and depth, constitutes the nature of corporeal substance; and thought constitutes the nature of thinking substance. For all else that may be attributed to body presupposes extension, and is but a mode of this extended thing; as everything that we find in mind is but so many diverse forms of thinking.” So the essence of mind is thinking; other mental properties are “modes” of thinking (e.g. sensation, imagination, understanding, . . .). The essence of matter is extension; other physical properties are modes of extension (e.g. mass, volume, shape, movement . . .). Each person is a mind, a mental substance; each person is also attached to a body with which he or she interacts.

This interaction, however, poses a problem for Descartes. How do two substances as radically different as mind and body, two substances which indeed have no properties in common (mind doesn’t have extension and body doesn’t think, according to Descartes), have any effect on each other? Here is a fragment from a letter from Princess Elizabeth to Descartes (written May 6-16, 1643): “I beg of you to tell me how the human should can determine the movement of the animal spirits in the body so as to perform voluntary acts — being as it is merely a conscious substance. For the determination of movement seems always to come about from the moving body’s being propelled — to depend on the kind of impulse it gets from what sets it in motion, or again, on the nature and shape of this latter thing’s surface. Now the first two conditions involve contact, and the third involves that the impelling thing has extension; but you utterly exclude extension from your notion of soul, and contact seems to me incompatible with a thing’s being immaterial.” (From Anscombe and Geach, ed., Descartes: Philosophical Writings, Nelson, 1964, pp. 274-75.) Descartes attempts to reply, but the worry seems to many to remain.

2. Freedom of the will. Descartes does not engage in an extended discussion of problems about free will. But he clearly thinks that the will is free: remember that this figures crucially in his explanation in Meditation Four of the possibility of error. We can make mistakes in judgment, despite God’s not being a deceiver, he there argues, because the will extends further than the understanding, so that we sometimes freely assent to propositions which we don’t completely understand.

Notice, however, that Descartes thinks that in a sense the will can be completely determined and yet nevertheless be free. Remember the following passage from Meditation IV: “In order for me to be free it is unnecessary for me to be moved in neither direction; on the contrary, the more I am inclined toward one direction . . . the more I choose that direction more freely. . . . The indifference that I observe when no reason moves me more in one direction than in another is the lowest level of freedom; it evinces no perfection in it, but rather a defect in my knowledge, or a certain negation. Were I always to see clearly what is true and good, I would never deliberate about what is to be judged or chosen. Thus, although I may be entirely free, I could never for that reason be indifferent.” Elsewhere, Descartes goes so far as to say that “upon a great illumination of the intellect there follows a great inclination of the will; thus, if we see very clearly that a thing is suitable for us, then it is difficult for us (I think, even impossible), so long as we remain in this state of mind, to stay the course of our desire” (Anscombe and Geach, p. 289), and he endorses the Platonic view that no one who acts wrongly clearly understands that what they are doing is wrong: “If we saw clearly that it is bad, we could not possibly sin — not so long as we did see it in this way” (p. 290).

3. Religion and Science. Notice that Descartes has tried to make theology compatible with natural science by insisting that God, and indeed the spiritual or mental side of human nature, is completely different from the corporeal world and hence need not be subject to the laws of physics, which are the laws of corporeal substance. We will see a radically different attempt to reconcile theology and physics in Spinoza.


4. Skepticism. In the First Meditation, Descartes launches a devastating skeptical attack on our received views. Notice that for Descartes, the gap between what we can be certain of and what, until later in the Meditations, we cannot, coincides with the gap between mental substance and physical substance: we can be certain about the contents of our own minds; the main skeptical problem is how we can ever get from that knowledge to knowledge of the physical world. In the remainder of the Meditations, Descartes tries to win back our certainty about a good many of our beliefs, arguing that we can trust our clear and distinct perceptions, those perceptions made possible by the light of nature, to be true. This theme will virtually disappear in Spinoza and Leibniz, who seem even more sanguine about clear and distinct perception than Descartes. But skepticism will begin to reemerge in Locke, and for Berkeley and Hume it will be a major focus of attention.

5. The source of knowledge. We’ve seen Descartes’ conviction that sensation and imagination are not reliable sources of knowledge; only understanding or reason can be trusted. This aspect of Descartes’ thought will not be questioned by Spinoza or Leibniz, but will come under sharp attack by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume.

6. Subjective and objective. Which of the features we perceive the world to have are objectively present, and which are due simply to the nature of our own perceptual or cognitive apparatus? This is an important question for Descartes, who in the Sixth Meditation concludes that sensory properties — taste, warmth, colors, and so on — are not really features of objects, while the properties made use of by mathematical physics are. (You may want to remember the passage on p. 442: “Although I feel heat upon drawing closer to the fire, and I feel pain upon drawing even closer to it, there is indeed no argument that convinces me that there is something in the fire that is similar either to the heat or to the pain, but only that there is something in the fire that causes in us these feelings of heat or pain.” We will later see a very similar argument in Locke.

Apollodorus relates to an unnamed companion a story he learned from Aristodemus about a symposium, or dinner-party, given in honor of the tragedian Agathon. Socrates arrives at the party late, as he was lost in thought on the neighboring porch. After they have finished eating, Eryximachus picks up on a suggestion of Phaedrus’, that each person should in turn make a speech in praise of the god of Love.

Phaedrus begins by saying that Love is one of the oldest of the gods, and the one that does the most to promote virtue in people. Pausanias follows Phaedrus, drawing a distinction between Common Love, which involves simple and mindless desire, and Heavenly Love, which always takes place between a man and a boy. In the case of Heavenly Love, the boy, or loved one, sexually gratifies the man, or lover, in exchange for education in wisdom and virtue. After Pausanias, Eryximachus, the doctor, speaks, suggesting that good Love promotes moderation and orderliness. Love does not restrict itself to human interaction, but can be found in music, medicine, and much else besides.

The next to speak is the comic poet Aristophanes. Aristophanes draws an engaging myth that suggests that we were once all twice the people we are now, but that our threat to the gods prompted Zeus to cut us in half. Ever since, we have wandered the earth looking for our other half in order to rejoin with it and become whole. Agathon follows up Aristophanes, and gives a rhetorically elaborate speech that identifies Love as young, beautiful, sensitive, and wise. He also sees Love as responsible for implanting all the virtues in us. Socrates questions Agathon’s speech, suggesting that Agathon has spoken about the object of Love, rather than Love itself.

In order to correct him, Socrates relates what he was once told by a wise woman named Diotima. According to Diotima, Love is not a god at all, but is rather a spirit that mediates between people and the objects of their desire. Love is neither wise nor beautiful, but is rather the desire for wisdom and beauty. Love expresses itself through pregnancy and reproduction, either through the bodily kind of sexual Love or through the sharing and reproduction of ideas. The greatest knowledge of all, she confides, is knowledge of the Form of Beauty, which we must strive to attain.

At the end of Socrates’ speech, Alcibiades bursts in, falling-down drunk, and delivers a eulogy to Socrates himself. In spite of Alcibiades’ best efforts, he has never managed to seduce Socrates as Socrates has no interest at all in physical pleasure.

Soon the party descends into chaos and drinking and Aristodemus falls asleep. He awakes the next morning to find Socrates still conversing. When everyone else has finally fallen asleep, Socrates gets up and goes about his daily business as always.

Overall Analysis and Themes

The prominent place the Symposium holds in our canon comes as much as a result of its literary merit as its philosophical merit. While other works among Plato’s middle-period dialogues, such as the Republic and the Phaedo, contain more philosophical meat, more closely examining the Theory of Forms and intensely cross-examining interlocutors, none can match the dramatic force of the Symposium. It is lively and entertaining, with sharp and witty characterization that gives us valuable insight into the social life of Athenian intellectual circles.

From a philosophical standpoint, the Symposium is also far from bankrupt. Not only does it give us some insight into the Theory of Forms in Diotima’s discussion of the Form of Beauty, but it also gives us a number of varying perspectives on love. Significantly, we see Plato rejecting the romanticization of sexual love, valuing above all an asexual and all-consuming passion for wisdom and beauty. Ultimately, he concludes, the philosopher’s search for wisdom is the most valuable of all pursuits. In the Symposium, Plato values philosophy, as exemplified by Socrates, over a number of other arts which are given as points of comparison: medicine, as exemplified by Eryximachus, comedy as exemplified by Aristophanes, and tragedy as exemplified by Agathon.

The series of speeches in praise of Love are not simply meant as beating around the bush that leads up to the main event. They mirror Diotima’s discussion of the mysteries, where she suggests that one can approach the truth only through a slow and careful ascent. Similarly, we can see each speech, with a few exceptions, as coming closer and closer to the truth. This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that Socrates alludes to all the foregoing speeches in his own speech, as if to suggest that his words could not be spoken until everyone else had said their piece. This staggered approach to truth is also reflected in the framing of the narrative, whereby we are only able to gain access to this story through a series of narrative filters.

We should note that Socrates is the exemplar of the lover of wisdom and the lover of beauty, but is neither wise nor beautiful himself. In this way, he best represents Love, which Diotima describes as a mediating spirit that moves between gods and men. Love himself never has anything, but is always desirous of happiness, beauty, and wisdom. The same is true with Socrates. Those who follow his lead will not necessarily attain wisdom, but will find fulfillment in a life-long pursuit of wisdom. The state of having attained wisdom is represented by Diotima, not Socrates, and she speaks through Socrates as a god-like and unapproachable figure.

There is also some discussion as to exactly what is being discussed in the Symposium. The Greek word eros leaves the matter ambiguous as to whether we are discussing love in the normal, human, sense of the word, or if we are discussing desire in a much broader sense. The later speeches in particular tend toward this broader interpretation. Diotima gives what is perhaps a satisfactory answer by suggesting that, while all kinds of desire might be considered love, we normally restrict use of that term to one particular kind of desire, the desire that exists between two human beings.

Philosophy aside, however, the Symposium still makes a terrific read. Aristophanes’ myth is delightful, Alcibiades’ drunken antics are entertaining, and the whole narrative shimmers with life. We also get a very clear sense of the dynamics of sexual attraction and courtship–both male-male and male-female–in ancient Athens, and we are given a beautiful portrait of one of the high-points of the Athenian scene: the symposium.

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Human Rights

Controversies in the Current International Human Rights Debate

Scholarship thrives on academic debate. If there is overall consensus, if everybody agrees on everything, the dynamics of thinking are at risk. The quiet of the grave is not suited for the development of thought. What is true of scholarship in general, is also true for the particular branch of scholarship that deals with human rights. Human rights is a field dominated by jurists, but also covered by sociologists, psychologists, cultural anthropologists, historians, as well as political scientists. Human rights refers to the concept of human beings as having universal rights, or status, regardless of legal jurisdiction, and likewise other localizing factors, such as ethnicity and nationality.

1. Challenges to human rights

Few governments today admit that they violate central human rights such as freedom of speech, or prohibitions against slavery and torture. Violations of human rights  are denied or excused, but seldom defended The Bangkok Declaration of 1993 changed this. In this declaration, representatives of Asian states dismissed civil and political rights as contrary to “Asian values”. Their statement has received much attention, particularly since it appeared immediately prior to the 1993 Vienna World Conference on human rights.

Human rights are universal and critical norms constraining the allocation and exercise of state power, so it should come as no surprise that some governments object to human rights The Bangkok Declaration insists that states have the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of, human rights and the primary responsibility to remedy human rights violations. It falls to the government to determine trade offs where appropriate, and secure rights through such institutions as each government decides. Human rights must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm-setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.

The declaration insisted, in short, that national sovereignty entails non-interference in the internal affairs of the State, including the “non-use of human rights as an instrument of political pressure”.

From the Bangkok Declaration one may extract at least nine objections to human rights  which will be presented and discussed in the following, only to be found wanting.

1 Human rights are based on atomistic egoism

Human rights are unduly based on a Western conception of the individual as self-interested and atomized. For societies not sharing this conception, human rights talk amounts to objectionable Western cultural or ideological imperialism.

2) Human rights ignore human duties

A focus on human rights ignores or detracts from the duties of citizens to abide by the commands of their heads of family and government.

3) Human rights ignore communal ties

The concern for human rights ignores, or is incompatible with, individuals’ local duties, to members of their own community and to the interests of their own society.

4 Human rights ignore social and economic needs

The focus of international or Western attention on civil and political rights is skewed. Non-Western conceptions of human rights include concern for individuals’ social, economic and cultural needs as well. Such rights  require hard choices and trade offs with civil and political rights.

5) Human rights violate respect for individuals’ tacit consent

Respect for individuals does not require respect for their ” human rights”  but instead, requires that foreigners do not interfere with the society which individuals accept. The tacit consent of individuals should be respected, even when their government fails to respect human rights.

6) Human rights violate respect for other cultures

Human rights violate respect for other cultures by imposing a blueprint which conflicts with many non-western societies. Respect for other cultures requires that societies should be left to flourish as they see fit.

7 )Human rights  ignore non-governmental threats

The human rights focus ignores the very real threats to human well-being wrought by non-governmental agents and other states. Under non-ideal situations, such as civil war or noncompliance by other states, any human rights obligations of states are canceled.

8 Human rights violate state sovereignty

Foreign protests and intervention of any kind violate long-standing and generally accepted principle of national self determination.

9 Human rights threaten world stability

Human rights protests ignore the risk of global instability created by foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of other states.

These objections suggest that human rights should be dismissed as an objectionable exercise in Western ideological imperialism.

Human right con traversies.

The following subjects are current major themes in the field:

  1. the universal character of human rights.
  2. The existence, validity and the content of human rights. Are human rights political, moral or legal entities (or all three at the same time)?
  3. Is there or should there be a hierarchy of human rights? Which rights should be defined as fundamental human rights? Should all human rights be considered equal?
  4. Questions of cultural relativism.
  5. the place of collective rights.
  6. the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights next to civil and political  rights;
  7. Do human rights impede on state sovereignty? What if the state itself has ratified international conventions? international intervention for humanitarian purposes. Should human rights be used as a context for economic or military intervention? (Often leads to a worsening of the human rights situation in the target country)
  8. Who should hold the moral duty to uphold rights? For civil and political rights, many would answer ‘the state’. But in practice, it is frequently one’s fellow citizens and civil society who need to shoulder this responsibility. It is not quite so clear who should be responsible for promoting economic, social and cultural rights (do we have a global duty?).
  9. the role of multinational corporations in the promotion of human rights;
  10. International Criminal Tribunals  and their jurisdiction.
  1. The Universal Character of Human Rights. In the eyes of a superficial observer the question of the universality of human rights was resolved at the World Conference of Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993. In the Final Declaration of that Conference it was stated: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.” However, this was followed by the ominous addition, that has since been quoted on many occasions, that “(…) the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind.” The precise meaning of this addition, which was obviously the result of a political compromise, has remained unclear. Yet, these very national and regional particularities lie at the basis of possible differences of view between local and international social movements affecting human rights implementation.
  2. The existence, validity and the content of human rights The existence, validity and the content of human rights continue to be the subject to debate in philosophy and political science. However human rights are defined in international law & covenants, and further, in the domestic laws of many states. There is, however, a great deal of variance between how human rights norms are defined in these multiple contexts and how they are upheld in different local jurisdictions. Within particular states, “human rights” refer to safeguards for the individual against arbitrary use of power by the government regarding 1) the well being of individuals, 2) the freedom and autonomy of individuals, and 3) the representation of the human interest in government. These rights commonly include the right to life, the right to an adequate standard of living, freedom from torture and other mistreatment, freedom of religion and of expression, freedom of movement, the right to self-determination, the right to education, and the right to participation in cultural and political life. These norms are based on the legal and political traditions of United Nations member states and are incorporated into international human rights instruments (see below).
  3. Is there or should there be a hierarchy of human rights? With the exception of so called non-derogable human rights (the four most important are the right to life, the right to be free from slavery, the right to be free from torture and the right to be free from retroactive application of penal laws), most human rights can be limited or even pushed aside during times of war. Conduct in war is governed by International Humanitarian Law
  4. Different Cultures. Political participation is not a part of African culture. Who are you to say that we should have political participation?” These arguments can also be made on religious basis: e.g., “In our religion marriages have always been arranged; why should we not continue this practice?” Some arguments claim that human rights policies are a form of cultural imperialism in which powerful countries dictate which rights they consider most important to less powerful countries. The increasing number of third-world states that are party to international human rights treaties has made these arguments weaker, but they have not disappeared altogether

Differences of view on the precise nature of human rights are not limited to intercultural relations. They are found within cultures as well. Among western nations there exists a great deal of difference of view regarding capital punishment as a violation of the right to life. This applies of course to the United States, where in most of the states the death penalty is retained and practised. In two western countries (Israel, and the United Kingdom) the death penalty still exists for crimes in time of war. The remaining western countries are among the 68 countries where the death penalty has been fully abolished. Differences of view about the precise meaning of the right to life exist within national societies as well. The question of when life begins sharply divides proponents and opponents of legalized abortion. Should the unborn child be protected by the right to life? Most international treaties are silent on this issue and it appears difficult in most societies to reach consensus over national legislation on the matter. The same applies to the definition of circumstances under which euthanasia should be permitted, which is still hotly debated in most western societies. The cited examples show how within one (western) culture opinions may vary about the precise meaning of the fundamental human right to life. The same is true for the precise meaning of certain other human rights. Should pornography be seen as a manifestation of freedom of expression? Homosexual relationships between consenting adults as a matter of lifestyle? Should polygamy be allowed?

The Case of Amnesty International. For many years a debate took place among members of Amnesty International, on the question of whether the organization should work for the release of persons who had been imprisoned because of their homosexuality. A similar debate has taken place on the question whether and to what extent Amnesty should oppose the practice of female circumcision. It was part of a debate on to what extent Amnesty should oppose human rights violations by non-state actors. Recently the issue of abortion.

  1. Collective rights. Human rights, as codified in most international human rights instruments, are mainly formulated in terms of the rights of individuals. The only exceptions are the common article 1 of the two UN human rights covenants of 1966 relating to the right of self-determination of peoples and a number of articles of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights. Should, next to the right of self-determination other collective rights (or group rights) be recognized?

Rights that do qualify as collective rights are: the right of self-determination, freedom from genocide, the right of peoples to development and to access to natural resources. Other collective rights are such rights as the maintenance or protection of one’s culture, the prohibition of racial, religious and/or linguistic discrimination, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the rights of minorities. The individual human rights alone are not adequate to guarantee a dignified human existence. What should be the relationship between collective rights and individual rights? Which should prevail in case of conflict? in case of conflict among rights, individual rights should prevail. It may even be argued that collective rights should always serve to reinforce the exercise of individual rights. Collective rights are then made subordinate to individual human rights. Whether a collective demand should be accepted as a right, depends on the question whether it adds something to the guarantees offered by already existing human rights to a dignified human existence and the quality of society as a whole. Who are the bearers of collective rights? The obvious answer would be: groups, collectivities. Should the state also be considered as a bearer of collective rights? This is an interesting question, as traditionally human rights are seen as instruments to protect the rights of individuals versus state power. Therefore the state should be rather seen as an addressee of individual as well as collective rights, but not as a bearer of such rights.

Are minorities bearers of collective rights? In principle yes, but this approach meets so far with little support among States. It is by no means accidental that in existing treaties minority rights are formulated as rights of collections of individuals. Certain states, such as France and Turkey, explicitly deny the existence of (ethnic) minorities within their territorial borders. Should certain conditions be set as to who may act as representative of a given collectivity? That would seem to be necessary, in order to prevent anyone from claiming to represent a certain collectivity.

  1. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights In the debates about the observance of human rights, economic, social and cultural rights are still receiving less attention than civil and political rights. Perhaps this is caused by a failure to recognize phenomena such as poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and unemployment as human rights problems. This is manifestly wrong. It needs little imagination to see that the right to life, which is generally considered as one of the classical civil rights, is closely linked to the (economic) rights to food, housing and healthcare. They are inseparable. Different from the area of civil and political rights, so far there exists no right to complain for states or individuals in case of an alleged violation of economic, social and cultural rights. Establishment of such a right, in the form of an optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, would strongly increase the possibilities for UN-bodies to supervise the observation of such rights. So far, states have been reluctant to agree to such a right to complain. the Final Declaration of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna: “The World Conference encourages the Commission on Human Rights, in cooperation with the Commission on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to continue the examination of optional protocols to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” For example, many aspects of the right to housing are in many national legal systems open to judicial review. Generally speaking, the courts are reluctant to review economic, social and cultural rights, in view of the alleged vagueness of relevant standards. The acceptance of economic, social and cultural rights on an equal footing with civil and political rights could have important consequences for the status of refugees.
  2. Do human rights impede on state sovereignty? What if the state itself has ratified international conventions? international intervention for humanitarian purposes. Should human rights be used as a context for economic or military intervention? (Often leads to a worsening of the human rights situation in the target country)

Our world order is a system of sovereign states. An important step in the development of the system of sovereign states is the principle of exclusive territorial control associated with the peace settlement at Westphalia in Germany, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Each independent state enjoys legal sovereignty which may be regarded as two complex bundles of legal authority: internal and external  A government enjoys internal sovereignty over the population within a territory insofar as it claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and is supreme over all other actors within that territory. And the government enjoys external sovereignty in the form of legal immunity against any agent beyond state borders: states are regarded as equals, not subject to any other government. This model allowed governments to provide domestic order and some security from outside domination, even under conditions of international anarchy.

State sovereignty has never been unrestricted within this world order of states. Some standards of legitimate governance which we now recognize as human rights were included in this arrangement from the start. The Peace of Westphalia required that the prince of the land must respect his citizens’ freedom to exercise their religion.  International agreements in the 18th and 19th century further regulated the treatment of religious minorities. For instance, in 1830, Greek independence was ensured in a protocol signed by Britain, France and Russia, on the condition that religious groups were to receive equal treatment. Treaties after Word War I secured minority protections. Since the Second World War, several international conventions have recognized a wide range of human rights as binding on governments as a matter of international law. Historically, these recent efforts continue a long-standing tradition of regulating existing institutions and government practices according to normative theories of human rights

The role of States: to secure the Common Good. A long-standing and broadly shared view on the responsible use of state power is that it must be used for the common good, understood as the good of present and future individual members of society. This view is found in several Western traditions, and in the Confucian and Islamic traditions referred to above.  Human rights provide a specification of the common good and how it should be pursued by governments, by regulating how benefits and powers should be allocated among individuals. The focus of human rights is to identify the bounds of these requirements, by exploring their grounds. For even though the state is the source of legal rights and other benefits, a legitimate state may not allocate benefits and burdens any way the government desires.

The recognition that constraints on government are needed is not uniquely Western.  Other civilizations have also claimed that government must be legitimate to command obedience, and that in this context all individuals have equal worth – though the conditions have not always been expressed in terms of human rights. Confucius held that for a governor to be fit to govern, he must avoid several evils. Two of these are “Terror, which rests on ignorance and murder. Tyranny, which demands results without proper warning” (Analects 20.3). However, the great Confucian thinker Mencius (372-289 BC) went further and permitted the assassination of tyrants.

Kautilya (c. 360 – 280 BC), an Indian Brahmin and minister to emperor Chandragupta Maurya, is known as the author of Arthashastra, a treatise on government. He there lays out conditions of good governance expressed as duties of the king. “The king shall provide the orphans, the aged, the infirm, the afflicted, and the helpless with maintenance. He shall also provide subsistence to helpless women when they are pregnant and to the children they give birth to.” “In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king; in their welfare, his own welfare. The welfare of the king does not lie in the fulfillment of what is dear to him; whatever is dear to the subjects constitutes his welfare”

Some exercises of internal sovereignty are nevertheless to be internationally condemned and regarded as issues of international concern.  China and other Asian states have rightly condemned the practice of apartheid (e.g. in the Proclamation of Teheran 1968 and the International Convention against Apartheid 1973); and urged the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples (1961 Declaration). Arguments must be offered for this right to condemn human rights  violations elsewhere

  1. Who should hold the moral duty to uphold rights? For civil and political rights, many would answer ‘the state’. But in practice, it is frequently one’s fellow citizens and civil society who need to shoulder this responsibility. It is not quite so clear who should be responsible for promoting economic, social and cultural rights (do we have a global duty?). This debate mirrors debates between communitarianism and cosmopolitanism.
  1. Multinational Corporations Increasingly, the notion is gaining acceptance that multinational corporations have a role to play in the promotion of respect for human rights in the countries where they operate. This has taken many years of great efforts on the part of especially non-governmental human rights organizations, who continue to remind multinationals of their responsibilities in this area. A young Dutch legal scholar, Nicola Jägers, has recently looked into the question which human rights may be at issue through the activities of multinational enterprises. She mentions the right to life, liberty and security, the prohibition of slavery, the freedom of movement and residence, the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression, the right to assembly and association, the right to work, conditions of work and the right to form a trade union, the right to rest and leisure, the right to take part in Government, the right to self-determination and to permanent sovereignty over natural wealth and resources. In the past, multinational corporations, when faced with criticism about their role in countries where gross human rights violations were taking place, used to refer to their observance of the law of the land and their refusal to “become involved in politics”. In that attitude a change seems to have occurred. Some multinationals tend to recognize their responsibility in this area and even use it in their public relations campaigns. The violation of human rights often leads to civil instability and uncertainty in the investment climate. And even in stable times, a lack of positive action from companies in this regard can damage corporate reputations. Recently, the two human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Pax Christi International proposed a number of “quality marks” for a corporate code of conduct. They conclude their report by stressing that, in order to be effective, a corporate human rights policy must become an integral part of a company’s culture. To this end:–employees at all levels must be made aware of the company’s standards;–a monitoring system will be needed to regularly assess company performance;–transparency requires the establishment of confidential complaint procedures for employees.
  1. International Criminal Tribunals What should happen to persons who are accused of being guilty of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law? They have committed international crimes such as genocide, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, disappearances, wanton killings, abductions, death in detention, rape, “ethnic cleansing”, robbery and ill-treatment of civilians — practices with which we in this day and age have become well familiar. The question of accountability for such acts arises whenever a change of regime has occurred, either because of internal political developments or by means of international intervention: Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Germany after reunification, Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Communist regime, the Former Yugoslavia, South Africa after the end of apartheid — to name just a few. In some cases such persons are tried by domestic courts, in other cases international criminal tribunals are established as with the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. After the international tribunals of Nuremberg and Tokyo of 1946 it took until 1993, before a decision was reached to set up a comparable tribunal: the one on the Former Yugoslavia, followed by that on Rwanda. Since 1948, the International Law Commission had studied on the possibility of setting up a permanent international criminal court, but it took until 1998 before an international conference held in Rome agreed on a draft-treaty on the subject. The tasks of this new court comprise (a) genocide, (b) crimes against humanity, (c) war crimes and (d) the crime of aggression which remains to be defined. The former two are clearly violations of human rights. A negative signal was the fact that such countries as the United States, China, India, and Israel voted against the draft text. One of the difficult questions that need to be resolved is who are the persons that will be given the authority to make judgements about the past. Obviously, as is common with this type of problems at the United Nations, it should be “eminent experts of high moral character”. Another question, which took considerable time to resolve, refers to the powers and degree of independence of the public prosecutor. [The leaders of Yugoslavia and Croatia, Slobodan Milosevic en Franjo Tudjman, Serb-Bosnian leaders Radovan Karadjic and Ratko Mladic]

The strength of the international criminal tribunals is that they help to serve to individualize guilt. However, one may pause to wonder, to what extent this is indeed an advantage, if one takes Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis into account, who argues that most of the German people were to a greater or lesser extent involved in the extermination of the Jews. Should all Germans have been punished then?  Or, only some of them?  And by whom?

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