On the Political Dimension of Human Rights: A Reply to Barry and Southwood

| May 2012
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The following is a response to Christian Barry’s and Nicholas Southwood’s  “What Is Special about Human Rights?” in the Fall 2011 issue of  Ethics & International Affairs.


In ‘What is Special about Human Rights?’, Christian Barry and Nicholas Southwood advance a  structural pluralist account of human rights as an alternative to both James Griffin’s personhood account and Charles Beitz’s practice-dependent account. Like the personhood account, the structural pluralist account is substantive in that it takes human rights to have grounds in core human interests; but unlike the personhood account, it admits of a plurality of interests as grounds for human rights (p. 380). The structural pluralist account departs further from the personhood account in its political dimension: Whereas Griffin takes human rights to be held against all moral agents, Barry and Southwood argue that human rights are always held in the first instance against political agents including, but not limited to, states (p. 380-1). This is meant to capture the appeal of Beitz’s practice-dependent approach while nevertheless maintaining the independence of human rights from their institutionalization in global practice.

While Barry and Southwood persuasively argue that the structural pluralist account avoids a number of problems associated with the personhood account on the one hand and the practice-dependent account on the other, it confronts a problem of its own. I argue that the structural pluralist account’s constraint on the sorts of agents that bear the primary duties correlative to human rights is too restrictive. As Barry and Southwood note, a similar objection can be levied against Thomas Pogge’s account of human rights, which they take to be a version of the structural pluralist account (p. 382). According to Pogge, human rights are claims on the design of coercive social institutions. On his account, a rogue government official who engages in torture does not violate the human rights of his victim assuming that the act of torture ‘is a truly isolated incident of conduct that is strongly discouraged (…) and severely punished when discovered’.[1] On his account, human rights are only violated when people are not provided with reasonable guarantees to certain forms of protection by the coercive social institutions imposed upon them. If the rogue government official’s torture victim is in general well-protected against such assaults by the coercive social institutions imposed upon him, his human right against torture is fulfilled despite his moral right against torture having been violated.

Barry and Southwood find this result counterintuitive. It is not clear, however, that their structural pluralist account does any better than Pogge’s. They suggest that because the rogue government official is a political agent, his act of torture constitutes a human rights violation (p. 382). But the description of the government official as rogue suggests that his act of torture is not undertaken in his official capacity. This is why it is not sufficient on its own to constitute a human rights violation on Pogge’s account. The act of a government official acting in an unofficial capacity is no different from the same act performed by an agent who has no political role at all. It is puzzling, then, that Barry and Southwood deny that being tortured by a sadistic kidnapper acting on his own behalf is sufficient for the violation of one’s human right against torture (p. 374).

To resolve the conflict in their judgments about the rogue government official and the sadistic kidnapper, Barry and Southwood have two options. If they want to maintain that human rights have only political agents as their primary duty-bearers, then, with Pogge, they must abandon the view that the rogue government official’s act of torture constitutes a human rights violation. Alternatively, they can concede, pace Pogge, that both the rogue government official and the sadistic kidnapper violate the human rights of their victims, even if they are in general well-protected against such acts by the relevant political institutions. This option requires a revision of their account so as to allow that individual moral agents can be primary bearers of the duties correlative to human rights.

In taking the first option, Barry and Southwood’s structural pluralist account will be subject to the same forceful criticisms as Pogge’s: It denies the status of human rights violation to some harms that are widely and plausibly thought to be such.[2] Furthermore, it is unclear what is to be gained by confining human rights only to those whose primary duty-bearers are political agents. Barry and Southwood’s reason for doing so is their view that human rights have a special political dimension; but I argue this view is not on its own sufficient to motivate the restriction.

The view that human rights have a special political dimension is compatible with an account according to which they are moral rights grounded in core human interests which are held in the first instance against all moral agents, and which ought to be politically protected. On this sort of account, all human rights give rise to further claims on political agents to protection. But we must distinguish between these claims to protection, which are held primarily against political agents, and the claim-rights that are to be protected, which are held against all moral agents; and we should not confine the term ‘human right’ to the former. Barry and Southwood provide no reason to think that human rights are only rights to protection against the violation of certain moral rights; nor does it seem apt to conceive of them only as such. We can explain what is special about human rights without this restriction: They are moral rights justified with reference to core human interests and which give rise to claims to protection held primarily against political agents, in addition to the duties they entail for all moral agents.


Jesse Anne Tomalty, Postoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies Justitia Amplificata at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany.



[1] World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), p. 60.

[2] See JohnTasioulas, ‘The Moral Reality of Human Rights’, in Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Who Owes what to the very Poor?, ed. by Thomas Pogge, UNESCO (Oxford: Oxford University Press, UNESCO, 2007), p. 97.

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Category: Issue 25.3, Online Exclusive, Response

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