The world is now going through a paradigm shift. The final curtain has come down on the international system founded at Bretton Woods and Yalta. However, the lines of the new system are not yet readily discernible. The euphoria of 1989 has been replaced by the angst associated with the birth of the successor system. Conflict between ethnic groups is reaching new heights in this atmosphere. Although ethnic group conflict has been a serious problem throughout the century, it again comes to center stage with a new sense of urgency as the violence associated with such conflict reaches proportions not seen since the close of World War II.
The restructuring of the international system is certainly an important factor in explaining the violent tendency of the current ethnic conflicts. However, these problems will not disappear with the emergence of a new international system. As technology binds the world closer together and increases our dependence on one another, contacts between ethnic groups will continue to increase both in frequency and intensity. Collective rights, rights which are rested in ethnic groups as opposed to individuals, have been adopted in some nations with plural societies as a method for solving such conflicts.
Yet, in contrast to individual-based rights, there is not a generally accepted justification for the application of these types of human rights. There are, in fact, those who argue that collective rights are not human rights at all. If we are not able to offer an internationally acceptable justification as to why we should resort to collective rights as human rights, then these types of rights cannot be a truly viable alternative for tackling the ethnic conflicts which will increasingly destabilize the international system. The lack of a generally accepted justification of collective rights promises to lead to a piecemeal approach to the development of these rights. A likely consequence of this could be a situation where we neither arrive at a sufficient understanding of what types of states should resort to collective rights, nor an understanding of which types of collective rights are best suited to solving the various forms of ethnic conflict. The ultimate result of such an approach could be an erosion of individual-based rights protections.
The goal of this paper is to present a justification for collective rights. I present a justification for group-based rights which does not undermine the status of the individual-based rights which are the hallmark of the United Nations' system of human rights guarantees. I argue that liberal political philosophy, which has played, and continues to play, a major role in shaping the United Nations' system of human rights protections, cannot provide a justification for collective rights which can allow for the application of these rights in all of the situations that may require such a solution. Consequently, also suggest that the difficulties faced by the United Nations in addressing the issue of collective rights are, in part, a result of the influence of liberalism on the human rights system. I then offer a justification for both individual and collective rights which is based upon the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. I argue that their theory can provide a fundamental justification for the systematic application of collective rights solutions which does not undermine the existing individual-based rights guarantees in the U.N.'s system when the goal of recognizing a collective rights-bearer is to prevent discrimination and guarantee the equal enjoyment of human rights by all.
My arguments pivot on the concept of the individual. In short, I argue that the liberal idea of the individual is not compatible with the concept of the individual inherent in the United Nations' system. I further argue that Berger and Luckmann's theory of the individual is in harmony with the U.N.'s understanding of the individual and can, therefore, provide a justification for collective rights which does not undermine the current international system of human rights protections.