John Rawls, The Laws of Peoples by Rany Ibrahim

28 07 2009

Rawls Law of Peoples

 

“Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements.”

John Rawls, The Laws of Peoples

By Rany Ibrahim

John Rawls, in his book The Law of Peoples, attempts to investigate the idea of a “Realistic Utopia.” Rawls starts by identifying the term “Peoples” and its use as a synonym for “Society of Peoples” that shares common ideals and principals based on a common social contract. Rawls lays down a guideline and a framework to define peoples through eight principles.[1] These principals provide a structure of justice in free democratic societies. In this essay, I will discuss the second principal, “Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements,” to highlight some criticism of this concept, and focus on its relation to several main points. I will start by an attempt to provide an understanding to the definition of “Peoples” according to Rawls’s view, minorities’ rights within societies, immigration and people’s memberships in multi-societies, temporary and permanent peoples, the difference between peoples and states, and the right to self-determination and war within the international framework.

Rawls’s wide views of “Peoples” in public political culture have several government models that may be in forms of liberal democratic governments or non-liberal but “decent governments.” Rawls defines “Peoples” as sharing common values and “common sympathies” and connected by a collective sense of justice and good. Rawls states that “a society of Peoples is reasonably just in that its members follow the reasonably just Law of Peoples in their mutual relations.”[2] Rawls’s idea of public reason combines both moral and political values between government and citizens, as well as citizens and citizens.[3]

Rawls defines peoples as the parties who choose the law, which in many cases means that peoples might only represent the dominant majority and can disregard minorities’ rights or concerns. There is no assurance under Rawls’s theory that they will have to be, or need to be, represented. For example, he defines peoples as cohesive by “common sympathies” with a collective sense of justice and good, and justifies that lack of representation by minorities as acceptable, as long as they are living in “decent societies.” In a modern world, borders and distance are no longer an issue; people’s movements and immigration is more commonly practice among societies. In this sense, the immigrated societies will not necessarily have a common sympathy or collective sense of good by having various groups of immigrants from several backgrounds, ethnic groups or religions. National interest of a given society is the keyword that explains society’s common interests; when a group of people unites with selected principals or goals, they believe it represents their chosen identity. Peoples can have shared memberships in several groups that may result in conflicts. Rawls’s liberalism principals are not clear when it came through a modern or an international framework. These principles “Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements,” at times, give flexibility to regimes that violate core human rights, such as equality and freedoms, especially when it comes to minorities to justify their practices since their agreements are not agreements of all the society. These agreements can be agreements of the majority of the society that, in some cases, suppresses minorities within the same society.[4]

Rawls’s approach of peoples would be considered unsatisfactory for modern times. I am an example of mobilization and cross-memberships in modern world. I was born and lived in Egypt and then decided to immigrate and live in Canada. I can relate myself to Allen Buchanan’s critique of Rawls when he stated:

Individuals often do not live their whole lives in the society into which they are born. What this means is that there is a need for principals that track individuals across borders-principals that specify the rights that individuals have irrespective of which society they happen to belong to, and which reflect the independence of individuals from any particular society.[5] 

When this argument referred to Rawls’s “Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements” concept, it reveals weaknesses in his use of both terms: “equal” and “agreements.” In my case, I still feel that I belong to and am an active member in both societies, and that gave me a unique position to be a member in a majority group in one society and minority group in the other. Based on Rawls definition, I am a member in the “Peoples” group in the society that I am a majority in (Egypt), and non-member in the society that I am a minority in (Canada). As an immigrant, one is dealing with the state before dealing with peoples through the time that one takes to process an immigration application; one is going through bureaucracy of government regulations and assessments until one becomes a citizen. Subsequently, one starts at this point to deal with peoples or the unofficial body of the state that is called society.  This argument highlights the weakness in his position on this topic, and that a more comprehensive approach to peoples as “global citizens” can be more of a realistic approach, especially when it comes to basic human rights. The concept of peoples within Rawls Law of Peoples will face another challenge: there are “temporary peoples” and “permanent peoples”. Temporary peoples are peoples living within the society for a significant period of time, such as international students or foreigner workers. They can spend several years in a country, or even in some cases, become permanent residents that have some additional rights within the society.  In Rawls view, they may not have full rights that appear significant, such as political rights or the right to vote, form or participate in a political party. They have narrow restrictive rights, or sometimes, no rights, and in this case “Peoples” are not equal or parties to the society’s agreement.

According to Rawls, the main difference between peoples and states is that peoples do not have the same rights and recognition by the international community as do states. Rawls states that peoples differ from states in two essential respects. First, people do not have powers of autonomy conventionally associated with states, and do not have the right to war unless it is in self-defence. Second, states have the right of non-interference in their internal affairs, while in peoples, in contrast, there are minimal standards of human rights within societies’ internal affairs.[6] Rawls says that states are traditionally “conceived” and may not have “moral character,” while “Peoples” “who qualify” for membership in the society of peoples do have this moral character. Peoples, to Rawls, are societies which are politically organized, and the end result of this organization is the formation of a state. Rawls is walking a fine line when he attempts to differentiate between peoples and states; he draws a crucial distinction between both. The sense of the Law of Peoples theory “Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements,”[7] is a reproduction to a hybrid model of both: first, Peoples are not organizations; second, peoples as organized groups are a state, which leads to this hybrid model. An example is that “Peoples” can be represented in the form of members of parliament (MPs), who are representing the majority of “Peoples” in the people’s assembly through political parties or organizations. Governments are the executive arm and the end result of this process, which is linked to peoples in his theory; government represents the state. As a result, if one does not qualify to be a member in this group of “Peoples” or one is a minority, s/he will not enjoy the equal rights that other parties have in their own agreements.

Rawls discusses religion and public reason in democracy. He is questioning legitimacy of regimes when “citizens holding religious doctrines as citizens of faith”[8] and thus might not be endorsed by the non-religious members of the society, or allied within the regime’s national interest. An important question arises about the position of secular groups within states in Rawls view. The concept of “Peoples” and the other group of peoples among peoples (religious groups for example) that creates societies that have common character can be as strong, or even at times stronger than, a regional or ethnic group. An example of this can be seen in the Christian and Muslim groups around the world that are united by common values and self-identity based on faith, which go beyond states’ geographic boundaries to create their own global community.  Also, conflicts can be so significant when they surface between secular groups and states. Rawls did not provide assurance of religious groups’ participation in the civil society, beyond society’s self-toleration in conjunction with a reasonable respect of main principals of justice.

Rawls’s ideas that non-organized peoples have the same rights as organized peoples within states are not clear when it comes to the position of minorities within these states. Buchanan’s argument in his “Vanished Westphilian World” essay states that people are “aware that increasingly the most serious and destructive conflicts occur within states, rather than between them.” [9] The international community might intervene in extreme cases of violations of human rights, such as genocide, but most likely will not interfere in other violations such as the right of equality, right of education or right of freedom, since in many cases they are considered to be state internal affairs. In particular, the right of self-determination, sovereignty or going to war – and I would argue here civil war – can be justified. Civil war starts when one of two groups of peoples (typically the minority group) within a larger group of peoples tends to think that they share different common values from the other group. Perceptions may vary among the two groups on the definition of this movement. To the first separatist group, it is a war of independence; to the other larger group, it is a civil war. It is more difficult to the international community to have a clear view of the war. For example, in former Yugoslavia, when Serbia and Bosnia, two provinces at that time, felt that they had the right to self-determination and independence, this ultimately resulted in war. This side of the argument confuses the governance model, and disrupts the real acting governing systems (provincial verses federal). Rawls will have to justify revolution from any internal group of peoples that believes that they have the right under these principles to be states and not just peoples within the existing states. This concept was challenged many times under international law, and allowed other internal or external parties to intervene. Another dimension to the same concept of the states’ right of war is that in modern times, it is not necessarily states that intervene; global organizations such as NATO or the United Nations can intervene whenever they feel it is necessary.

Societies can be economically self-sufficient units or politically homogeneous, not necessarily states. In Canada, Quebec is another example of peoples among peoples as the province wishes to be a state. When it comes to politics, Quebec has considerable representation federally. However, in the large scheme of things, Quebec does not have a real representation nationwide. Rawls creates a shadow line of government acting as a mirror to society that reflects many, if not most, of the segmented structural elements to government. The exception to this is that “Peoples” do not have the same powers, and some might feel that they have considerable reasons of unity amongst themselves, and disconnection among the larger peoples group that allows them to be separated as a state.

“Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements” is a vague concept when we put the term “Peoples” in context and use it around minorities’ rights within societies, immigration and people’s memberships in multi-societies, temporary and permanent peoples, and the right to self-determination and war. Rawls’s governments’ legislations are acceptable within reasonable main elements that include basic rights and liberties, high priority for fundamental freedoms, and adequacy of freedoms. These elements are under conditions that represent citizens justly, reasonably, rationally, and deciding between available principles for appropriate reasons. Rawls tends to provide the feeling that the term “Peoples,” in his view, is inclusive of peoples in most common liberal societies or non-liberal decent states. However, in practice it excludes several groups for its essential general membership that is the fundamental core for both the society and the state. The basic human rights and the rights of each citizen were challenged several times in liberal constitutional democracies. Minorities’ rights, as well as people’s affiliations with groups, gave more complicated depth to Rawls’s “Peoples” definition in hierarchical societies. A comprehensive view of Rawls can reasonably endorse extending the idea of a social contract beyond “Peoples” as legitimate reasonable citizens to genuine reasonable citizens that are living in liberal comprehensive doctrine.

 

Bibliography

Buchanan, Allen. Rawls’s Law of Peoples: Rules for a Vanished Westphalian World. Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 4. (Jul., 2000), pp. 697-721. Symposium on John Rawls’s Law of Peoples.

Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

 


[1] Rawls eight principals are:

1) “Peoples are free and independent, and their freedom and independence is to be respected by other peoples.”

 2) “Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements.”

 3) “Peoples have the right of self-defense but no right to war.”

 4) “Peoples are to observe a duty of non-intervention.”

 5) “Peoples are to observe treaties and undertakings.”

 6) “Peoples are to observe certain specified restrictions on the conduct of war.”

 7) “Peoples are to honor human rights.”

 8) “Peoples have a duty to assist other peoples living under unfavourable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent political and social regime.”

Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999 P37. 

[2] Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999 P5.

[3] Ibid 132

[4] Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

[5] Buchanan, Allen. Rawls’s Law of Peoples: Rules for a Vanished Westphalian World. Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 4. (Jul., 2000), pp. 697-721. Symposium on John Rawls’s Law of Peoples. P 698.

[6] Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

[7] Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

[8] Ibid, P149

[9] Buchanan, Allen. Rawls’s Law of Peoples: Rules for a Vanished Westphalian World. Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 4. (Jul., 2000), pp. 697-721. Symposium on John Rawls’s Law of Peoples. P 701.


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