Colloquium Wanja Illerhaus-Bell

Published on
August 17, 2015

You are hereby cordially invited to the presentation of the thesis of Wanja Illerhaus-Bell entitled "Rethinking Sovereignty and Human Rights: Towards the Realization of Human Rights under Conditions of Challenged State Sovereignty".

Supervisor: Dr Otto Hospes
Co-examinor: Prof. Bernd van der Meulen
Date and time:  20 August 2015, 15:30-16:30 hours
Location: room 1062, Leeuwenborch, Hollandseweg 1, Wageningen


Human rights experience increasing attention since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Although the international human rights regime has made some achievements, it has not yet been able to accomplish the universal realization of human rights for every human being. In order to bring about change, there is a far reaching debate how to improve the realization of human rights. Mainly independent from this controversy, there is a second (mainly scientific) debate focusing on whether sovereignty can exclusively be attributed to states or also to other actors. In this course, many scholars point to a need for a new conceptualization of sovereignty. This study responds to this need and argues that state sovereignty is challenged and that it can be exercised by various actors through four dimensions: (1) states exercise sovereignty directly through the dimension of consolidated sovereignty; (2) states exercise sovereignty indirectly through the dimension of meta-sovereignty; (3) foreign states and international organizations exercise sovereignty vertically through the dimension of international integration; and (4) business actors exercise sovereignty through the dimension of supplemented sovereignty in areas of limited statehood. 

By drawing on selected examples, this study subsequently contributes to and deepens the scientific and theoretical debate about the impact of challenged state sovereignty on the international human rights system: it argues that in certain instances, sovereignty exercised by external actors through the dimensions of supplemented and international integration sovereignty can negatively impact the ability of states to realize their human rights obligations and  undermine the efficacy of the human rights enforcement system. This has implications for any strategy, proposal or mechanism that strives for an improved human rights compliance and the actors they involve. Rather than centering these efforts mainly on states, there is a need to focus on those actors that ultimately exercise sovereignty. This, however, may be difficult to determine, particularly if it involves cunning states that attempt to shift responsibilities to other actors.

There is a controversy whether legally binding obligations or voluntary guidelines are more promising in improving the realization of human rights. On that matter, it is argued that voluntary guidelines are a feasible mechanism in cases where business actors are willing but lacking the expertise to comply to human rights norms and where adhering to them can change business actors' cost-benefit calculation. Legally binding obligations, on the other hand, would principally be feasible but require states to create them, irrespectively of whether they focus on business actors, international organizations and foreign states. This points to a persistence importance of states - rather than their demise - in the international human rights system. The willingness of certain groups of states to bring about change, however, might be limited, as economic benefits seem to trump over human rights.