Santa Clara University


Religion, Ethics and Politics in International Institutions

This section describes the roles of religion and ethics in the changing analysis and structures of international affairs in the modern era. Religion and ethics play a critical role in institutions and regimes like the United Nations, transnational organizations, international law, and human rights. These institutions and regimes reinforce each other in emphasizing the global impact of national and regional actors and events.

Global Connections: Principles and Structures for a Just World

The Westphalian system that resulted from the Thirty Years War (1618-48) emphasized the sovereignty of national states. Indeed, J. Bryan Hehir terms that system as built on two explicit propositions (state sovereignty, non-intervention) and one implicit idea (secularization of world politics). Only following World War I did decision-makers seek to add a specifically international component, the League of Nations. After the League’s failure to prevent the devastation of World War II, the United Nations was formed in San Francisco in 1945.

The human rights era of international affairs began on December 10, 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document’s thirty principles became concretized in the later International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Combined with the Tokyo and Nuremberg War Trials and the 1948 Genocide Convention, these documents formed the beginning of the global human rights regime, which reached even into the domestic politics of states. Religious groups have increasingly emphasized these rights, and in 1981 the United Nations passed its Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Belief.

The effectiveness of the United Nations on human rights and in general is the subject of many debates, with various reform measures under consideration. In September 2005, for example, over 170 world leaders met to consider progress on the Millennial Draft Goals and the future direction of the organization. The U.N. High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change had produced A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (2004), which recommended significant changes, from the composition of the Security Council to implementation of “the Responsibility to Protect” those suffering from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. 

The existence of the United Nations and international human rights documents thus does not guarantee their implementation. To support such implementation, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), for example, Human Rights Watch, have formed to support human rights in various ways. Many of these NGOs, both religious and secular, are accredited at the United Nations. All of this makes the international and transnational sectors of politics, religion, and ethics much more important and contentious than it was fifty years ago. Therefore, international conflict resolution can be approached at the international, transnational, and national diplomatic levels. At all levels, discussions of ethics, from Küng’s comprehensive global ethic to individual states’ and NGOs’ reactions to genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, play a role. Practitioners like the U.N. Secretary General can start from the international level on the basis of international law and/or principles of human rights. These practitioners often experience support and/or obstruction by individual states on the Security Council or other bodies. Transnational NGOs usually focus on particular issues in specific geographic areas. 

On this topic, please also see this site's entry on "Human Rights in the Global Political System" in Section One, including the General Assembly discussion of "the Responsibility to Protect" in summer 2009.


On this entire section, thanks to suggestions from Professors Jiri Toman and Koos van der Bruggen. However, the website author is responsible for any interpretative errors.

November 6, 2009.