The concept of basic human rights, subsidiarity, and the rise of the global South

Prof. Theresa Reinold

This contribution focuses on the first of three issues identified in the CfP for this panel, namely the challenge emanating from the global South, whose approaches to fundamental human rights are complex – encompassing both acceptance and outright rejection, but also contestation, localization, norm subsidiarity, etc. etc. While the empirical manifestations of these various responses have been frequently studied, the question remains how we can approach the effects of these responses from the perspective of normative theory. Focusing on the role of Africa, this contribution combines Henry Shue’s notion of basic human rights and the concept of subsidiarity to make sense of Southern actors’ approaches to fundamental rights. Naturally, the exact scope and content of these rights tends to be disputed – in global governance, pluralism prevails and this is healthy to a certain degree. However, respect for diversity and cultural peculiarities should not detract from the importance of certain fundamental values that are not context-specific, but ought to be respected universally. Henry Shue’s concept of basic human rights is useful in delineating the limits of subsidiarity in global governance, because it makes a persuasive case for the non-negotiability of a core set of rights that have a credible claim to universality and, as such, are immune to charges of cultural imperialism. My contribution will illustrate this core argument with two case studies on the rights to physical security and political participation in Africa.