Volume 11, 2008
How to Think about the Problem of Non-state Actors and Human Rights
International Human Rights Law is clear in holding only states or state-like entities responsible for human rights abuses, yet activists and philosophers alike do not see any rational basis for this restriction in responsibility. Multi-national corporations, individuals and a whole array of other 'non‐state actors' are capable of harming vital human interests just as much as states, so why single-out the latter as human rights-responsible agents? In this paper I distinguish two ways of looking at human rights responsibility. One is simply in terms of the outcomes that are deemed desirable to avoid (or secure), and the other is in terms of the relationships one sees these moral standards as governing. I argue that the peculiar form of responsibility and responsiveness (the way of 'holding to account')
inherent to human rights principles is directed at establishing a particular type of relationship: one in which individuals are empowered in the face of a very special form of communal power. Other kinds of relationship and potential transgression are more appropriately governed by different kinds of moral principles, such as those relating to criminality. The outcomes view fails to incorporate this insight and for that reason fails to see the distinct role played by human rights standards in our moral reasoning: they are precisely valuable because they provide a way to judge the relationship of individuals to the peculiar kind of power exercised by the state. Part of this project is a re-assessment of the methodology employed by philosophers in establishing moral principles and concepts, such as those relating to human rights standards.