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The location of international practices: what is human rights practice?


This article opens up space to challenge state-centrism about human rights practice. To do so, it presents and critically assesses four methods that can be used to determine who and/or what counts as a part of any international practice: the agreement method, which locates a practice by referring to speech acts that define it; the contextual method, which locates a practice by referring to the actions, meanings, and intentions of practitioners; the value method, which locates a practice by identifying a value or principle that the practice reflects or instantiates; and the purpose method, which locates a practice by constructing an account of the sociopolitical reason(s) for a practice's existence. The purpose method, based on an interpretation of Rawls' constructivism, is developed, in a way that focuses on practitioners' judgement-based reasons to assign responsibility for human rights to any state or non-state actor.

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1 Schatzki Theodore R., Knorr Cetina Karin, and von Savigny Eike (eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory (London: Routledge, 2001).

2 Adler Emanuel and Pouliot Vincent, ‘International Practices’, International Theory, 3:1 (2011), pp. 135.

3 Ibid., p. 24.

4 Chris Brown mentioned this example in the panel on ‘Middle Ground Ethics in International Relations’ at the SGIR 7th Pan-European Conference on IR, Stockholm, Sweden (10 September 2010).

5 Rawls John, ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, Journal of Philosophy, 77:9 (1980), pp. 515–72. See also James Aaron, ‘Constructing Justice for Existing Practice: Rawls and the Status Quo’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 33:3 (2005), pp. 281316.

6 Pouliot Vincent, ‘The Logic of Practicality: A Theory of Practice of Security Communities’, International Organization, 62:2 (2008), pp. 257–88; Adler and Pouliot, ‘International Practices’.

7 Pouliot, ‘The Logic of Practicality’.

8 Rawls John, The Law of Peoples with ‘The Idea of Public Reason Revisited’ (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Beitz Charles R., ‘Human Rights and the Law of Peoples’, in Chatterjee Deen K. (ed.), The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 102–24; Beitz Charles R., The Idea of Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Raz Joseph, ‘Human Rights Without Foundations’, in Besson Samantha and Tasioulas John (eds), The Philosophy of International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 321–37.

9 Oakeshott Michael, On Human Conduct (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975); Bourdieu Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Nice Richard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977); Nardin Terry, Law, Morality, and the Relations of States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983); MacIntyre Alasdair, After Virtue (2nd edn, London: Duckworth, 1985); Searle John R., The Construction of Social Reality (London: Penguin, 1995); Foucault Michel, The History of Sexuality, trans. Hurley Robert, 3 vols (London: Vintage, 1988–90); Keck Margaret E. and Sikkink Kathryn, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 35; MacIntyre Alasdair, ‘Social Structures and Their Threats to Moral Agency’, Philosophy, 74 (1999), pp. 311–29; Guzzini Stefano, ‘A Reconstruction of Constructivism in International Relations’, European Journal of International Relations, 6:2 (2000), pp. 147–82; Schatzki, Cetina, and von Savigny (eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory; Neumann Iver B., ‘Returning Practice to the Linguistic Turn: The Case of Diplomacy’, Millennium, 31:3 (2002), pp. 627–51; Adler Emanuel, ‘The Spread of Security Communities: Communities of Practice, Self-Restraint and NATO's Post Cold War Transformation’, European Journal of International Relations, 14:2 (2008), pp. 195230; Pouliot, ‘The Logic of Practicality’; Hopf Ted, ‘The Logic of Habit in International Relations’, European Journal of International Relations, 16:4 (2010), pp. 539–61; Navari Cornelia, ‘The Concept of Practice in the English School’, European Journal of International Relations, 17:4 (2011), pp. 611–30.

10 Adler, ‘The Spread of Security Communities’; Pouliot, ‘The Logic of Practicality’; Adler and Pouliot, ‘International Practices’; Adler Emanuel and Pouliot Vincent (eds), International Practices (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

11 Adler and Pouliot, ‘International Practices’, pp. 4–5.

12 Rawls says: ‘I use the word “practice” … as a sort of technical term meaning any form of activity specified by a system of rules which defines offices, roles, moves, penalties, defenses, and so on, and which gives the activity its structure.’ Rawls John, ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, The Philosophical Review, 64:1 (1955), p. 3, fn. 1. See also Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights, p. 105.

13 Pouliot, ‘The Logic of Practicality’.

14 Adler and Pouliot, ‘International Practices’.

15 Pouliot, ‘The Logic of Practicality’.

16 March James G. and Olsen Johan P., Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics (New York: Free Press, 1989), chap. 2; March James G. and Olsen Johan P., ‘The Institutional Dynamics of International Political Orders’, International Organization, 52:4 (1998), pp. 943–69, pp. 949–54.

17 Pouliot, ‘The Logic of Practicality’, pp. 260–65; Hopf, ‘The Logic of Habit’, pp. 549–51.

18 Surgeons especially can only be fully trained through practice; ‘practising’ medicine is a common expression.

19 Pouliot, ‘The Logic of Practicality’, pp. 265–78.

20 This list reflects that various narrower practices can be clustered inside of wider ones.

21 Kant Immanuel, ‘An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’, in Gregor Mary J. (ed.), Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 [orig. pub.1784]), pp. 1722; MacIntyre, ‘Social Structures and Their Threats to Moral Agency’.

22 Meckled-Garcia Saladin, ‘Do Transnational Economic Effects Violate Human Rights?’, Ethics & Global Politics, 2:3 (2009), pp. 259–76.

23 Berlin Isaiah, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), chap. 3. According to the ‘value method’, which I define and explain below – and which partly captures Berlin's own project – multiple practices might advance the same value. For example, redistribution through taxes in a capitalist liberal-democracy, on the one hand, and socialism, on the other, might both be thought of as ways to advance the value of positive liberty in practice.

24 Adler and Pouliot, ‘International Practices’, p. 6.

25 Wendt Alexander, ‘On Constitution and Causation in International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 24:5 (1998), pp. 101–18.

26 I also discuss the relationships between practices and their normativity in Karp David Jason, ‘Facts and Values in Politics and Searle's Construction of Social Reality’, Contemporary Political Theory, 8:2 (2009), pp. 152–75.

27 In this sentence, by ‘practice’, I mean doing things in the world, perhaps in a non-reflexive way that is formed by experience or habit, and by ‘a specific practice’, I mean patterned human activity with recognised social meaning and often (though not necessarily) a distinct label.

28 Sending Ole Jacob, ‘Constitution, Choice and Change: Problems with the “Logic of Appropriateness” and its Use in Constructivist Theory’, European Journal of International Relations, 8:4 (2002), pp. 443–70.

29 MacIntyre, ‘Social Structures and Their Threats to Moral Agency’.

30 Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights, pp. 13–47.

31 Ibid., p. 44.

32 Ibid., pp. 14–31.

33 Ibid., pp. 73–95.

34 Hart H. L. A., The Concept of Law (2nd edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997 [orig. pub. 1961]), pp. 78123.

35 Simmons Beth A., Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

36 Ratner Steven R., ‘Corporations and Human Rights: A Theory of Legal Responsibility’, Yale Law Journal, 111:3 (2001), pp. 443545; Alston Philip (ed.), Non-State Actors and Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Clapham Andrew, Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

37 John G. Ruggie, Protect, Respect and Remedy: A Framework for Business and Human Rights, A/HRC/8/5, Human Rights Council, UN General Assembly, 8th session (New York: United Nations, 2008), available at: {} accessed 28 January 2011.

38 Babbitt Susan E., ‘The Construction of Social Reality, John R. Searle’, The Philosophical Review, 106:4 (1997), pp. 608–10; Jackson Robert H., Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 178.

39 Simmons A. John, Moral Principles and Political Obligations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 57100.

40 Brown Chris, ‘Universal Human Rights: A Critique’, in Dunne Tim and Wheeler Nicholas J. (eds), Human Rights in Global Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 103–27.

41 Lauren Paul Gordon, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), pp. 94–8.

42 Skinner Quentin, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, 8:1 (1969), pp. 353; Pocock J. G. A., Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). See also Ball Terence, Farr James, and Hanson Russell L. (eds), Political Innovation and Conceptual Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

43 Finnemore Martha and Sikkink Kathryn, ‘International Norm Dynamics and Political Change’, International Organization, 52:4 (1998), pp. 887917; Keck and Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders; Risse Thomas, ‘“Let's Argue!”: Communicative Action in World Politics’, International Organization, 54:1 (2000), pp. 139.

44 Barnett Michael, ‘Humanitarianism Transformed’, Perspectives on Politics, 3:4 (2005), pp. 723–40.

45 Hopgood Stephen, Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

46 Burgers Jan Herman, ‘The Road to San Francisco: The Revival of the Human Rights Idea in the Twentieth Century’, Human Rights Quarterly, 14:4 (1992), pp. 464–70; Lauren Paul Gordon, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (2nd edn, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), pp. 135–65.

47 UNESCO (ed.), Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949).

48 Jackson Patrick T., The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations (New York: Routledge, 2011).

49 Popper Karl, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Hutchinson, 1959).

50 Sikkink Kathryn, ‘The Role of Consequences, Comparison and Counterfactuals in Constructivist Ethical Thought’, in Price Richard (ed.), Moral Limit and Possibility in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 90–1.

51 Karp, ‘Facts and Values in Politics’.

52 Dworkin Ronald, Law's Empire (London: Fontana, 1986), pp. 4586.

53 Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, chap. 3.

54 See Dworkin, Law's Empire, pp. 176–244; Dworkin Ronald, ‘Do Liberal Values Conflict?’, in Lilla Mark, Dworkin Ronald, and Silvers Robert B. (eds), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (New York: New York Review of Books, 2001), pp. 7390. See also Waldron Jeremy, ‘Security and Liberty: The Image of Balance’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 11:2 (2003), pp. 191210; Waldron Jeremy, ‘Safety and Security’, Nebraska Law Review, 85:2 (2011), pp. 454507.

55 Dworkin Ronald, Taking Rights Seriously (London: Duckworth, 1977); Dworkin Ronald, Sovereign Virtue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Griffin James, On Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

56 Waldron Jeremy, Liberal Rights: Collected Papers 1981–1991 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Hunt Lynn, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).

57 Cohen G. A., ‘Facts and Principles’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 31:3 (2003), pp. 211–45. See also Sangiovanni Andrea, ‘Justice and the Priority of Politics to Morality’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 16:2 (2008), pp. 137–64; Valentini Laura, ‘Global Justice and Practice-Dependence: Conventionalism, Institutionalism, Functionalism’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 19:4 (2011), pp. 399418.

58 Foot Philippa, ‘Moral Arguments’, Mind, 67 (1958), pp. 502–13; Foot Philippa, ‘Moral Beliefs’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 59 (1958–9), pp. 83104.

59 Rawls, ‘Kantian Constructivism’. See also Barry Brian M., Justice as Impartiality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); O'Neill Onora, Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); James, ‘Constructing Justice for Existing Practice’; Meckled-Garcia Saladin, ‘On the Very Idea of Cosmopolitan Justice: Constructivism and International Agency’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 16:3 (2008), pp. 245–71.

60 Rawls, ‘Kantian Constructivism’, p. 516.

61 Ibid., pp. 515–72.

62 James, ‘Constructing Justice for Existing Practice’, p. 282.

63 Jeffery Renee, ‘Reason, Emotion, and the Problem of World Poverty: Moral Sentiment Theory and International Ethics’, International Theory, 3:1 (2011), p. 150.

64 Price Richard, ‘Moral Limit and Possibility in World Politics’, International Organization, 62:2 (2008), pp. 191220.

65 Habermas Jürgen, The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. McCarthy Thomas, 2 vols (Cambridge: Polity, 1986). See also Benhabib Seyla, Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (New York: Routledge, 1992); Risse, ‘“Let's Argue!”’; Crawford Neta, Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization and Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Kornprobst Markus, ‘Argumentation and Compromise: Ireland's Selection of the Territorial Status Quo Norm’, International Organization, 61:1 (2007), pp. 6998.

66 , The Republic, trans. Lee Desmond (London: Penguin, 1974).

67 Rawls, ‘Two Concepts of Rules’; Oakeshott, On Human Conduct; Nardin, Law, Morality, and the Relations of States.

68 ICISS, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001); see also Reus-Smit Christian, ‘Human Rights and the Social Construction of Sovereignty’, Review of International Studies, 27:4 (2001), pp. 519–38.

69 Rawls, Law of Peoples, pp. 78–81; Beitz, ‘Human Rights and the Law of Peoples’; Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights; Raz, ‘Human Rights Without Foundations’. See also Shue Henry, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 2934; Donnelly Jack, ‘Human Rights: A New Standard of Civilization?’, International Affairs, 74:1 (1998), pp. 123; Donnelly Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (2nd edn, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 5770; Reus-Smit, ‘Human Rights and the Social Construction of Sovereignty’; Wheeler Nicholas J., Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Nickel James W., Making Sense of Human Rights (2nd edn, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 3841 and 70–91.

70 Pattison James, ‘Outsourcing the Responsibility to Protect: Humanitarian Intervention and Private Military and Security Companies’, International Theory, 2:1 (2010), pp. 131; Abrahamsen Rita and Williams Michael C., Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

71 Oakeshott, On Human Conduct; Nardin, Law, Morality, and the Relations of States; Karp David Jason, ‘The Utopia and Reality of Sovereignty: Social Reality, Normative IR and “Organized Hypocrisy”’, Review of International Studies, 34:2 (2008), pp. 313–35.

72 Rawls, Law of Peoples; Beitz, ‘Human Rights and the Law of Peoples’; Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights; Raz, ‘Human Rights Without Foundations’.

73 Arendt Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1968), pp. 267302.

74 UNESCO (ed.), Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations.

75 O'Neill Onora, ‘Agents of Justice’, Metaphilosophy, 32:1/2 (2001), pp. 184–5; Sassen Saskia, Authority, Territory, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (updated edn, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 277321; Hayden Patrick, ‘From Exclusion to Containment: Arendt, Sovereign Power, and Statelessness’, Societies Without Borders, 3:2 (2008), pp. 248–69.

76 Lauren Paul Gordon, Power and Prejudice: Politics and Diplomacy of Racial Discrimination (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988), pp. 210–50; Simpson A. W. Brian, Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the European Convention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

77 Hobsbawm Eric, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991 (London: Michael Joseph, 1994).

78 Weber Max, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, in Gerth H. H. and Mills C. Wright (eds), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 77128.

79 Donnelly, Universal Human Rights, pp. 57–70.

80 Ibid; Goodin Robert E., ‘What is So Special about Our Fellow Countrymen?’, Ethics, 98:4 (1988), pp. 663–86; Shue Henry, ‘Mediating Duties’, Ethics, 98:4 (1988), pp. 687704; O'Neill, ‘Agents of Justice’; Barry Christian, ‘Global Justice: Aims, Arrangements, and Responsibilities’, in Erskine Toni (ed.), Can Institutions Have Responsibilities? Collective Moral Agency and International Relations, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 230–31; Wenar Leif, ‘Responsibility and Severe Poverty’, in Pogge Thomas (ed.), Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Who Owes What to the Very Poor? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 255–74.

81 Walzer Michael, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977); Miller David, On Nationality (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995); Rawls, The Law of Peoples, pp. 38–9; Buchanan Allen, ‘Rawls's Law of Peoples: Rules for a Vanished Westphalian World’, Ethics, 110:4 (2000), pp. 697721; Pogge Thomas, World Poverty and Human Rights (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), pp. 5963.

82 Karp David Jason, Responsibility for Human Rights: Transnational Corporations, Principle and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

83 Jackson, Quasi-States; Evans Peter B., ‘The Eclipse of the State? Reflections on Stateness in an Era of Globalization’, World Politics, 50:1 (1997), pp. 6287; Erskine Toni, ‘Assigning Responsibilities to Institutional Moral Agents: The Case of States and Quasi-States’, in Erskine Toni (ed.), Can Institutions Have Responsibilities?, pp. 1940.

84 Abrahamsen and Williams, Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics. See also Clapham Andrew, Human Rights in the Private Sphere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Clapham, Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors; Chesterman Simon and Fisher Angela (eds), Private Security, Public Order: The Outsourcing of Public Services and its Limits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

85 Tilly Charles, ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime’, in Evans Peter B., Rueschemeyer Dietrich, and Skocpol Theda (eds), Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 169–91; Krause Keith and Williams Michael C., ‘From Strategy to Security: Foundations of Critical Security Studies’, in Krause Keith and Williams Michael C. (eds), Critical Security Studies: Concepts and Cases (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 3359; Krahmann Elke, ‘Security: Collective Good or Commodity?’, European Journal of International Relations, 14:3 (2008), pp. 379404.

86 Cox Robert, ‘States, Social Forces and World Orders’, Millennium, 10:2 (1981), pp. 126–55.

* Thanks to Kirsten Ainley, Chris Brown, Alasdair Young, three peer reviewers, and the editors of the Review of International Studies, for their helpful comments. Earlier versions of this manuscript were presented at: the ECPR Standing Group on International Relations (SGIR) General Conference, Stockholm (September 2010); the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention, New Orleans (February 2010); and the CRIPT-BISA workshop on Classical IR and Political Theory, Aberystwyth (May 2009). Thanks to all of the participants at these events for their engagement with this article. Numerous discussions with Saladin Meckled-Garcia have greatly influenced my thinking about the point and purpose of our concepts and practices.

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