The Wrong Vocabulary of Right: Minority Rights and the Boundaries of Political Community

26 Pages Posted: 9 Dec 2005

See all articles by Patrick Macklem

Patrick Macklem

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law

Date Written: December 2005


International law has long concerned itself with the boundaries of political communities that it regards as sovereign states. Yet when it engages questions about the nature and scope of rights that individuals and groups possess in the face of sovereign authority, it invariably assumes that international human rights should protect universal features of what it means to be a human being. This paper argues that international human rights law ought to advance a richer mission than what universalism presupposes, one that is much more closely related to normative questions surrounding the allocation, distribution and protection of sovereign authority. One dimension of this mission is to promote a just international distribution of sovereign authority, which implicates a different vocabulary of human rights - one that draws on the normative force of the principle of self-determination. This vocabulary has yet to be developed in no small measure because the field has been defined by the language of universalism. Its development would have the effect of casting debates in democratic theory about the legitimacy of minority rights in different terms. Instead of assuming the legitimacy of the boundaries of the broader political community in which minority rights are claimed, it would comprehend minority rights as mechanisms that possess the potential - depending on their nature and scope - to vest democracy's edges with normative significance.

Suggested Citation

Macklem, Patrick, The Wrong Vocabulary of Right: Minority Rights and the Boundaries of Political Community (December 2005). University of Toronto, Faculty of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Patrick Macklem (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law ( email )

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