Countering the Global Rise of Individualism

There has been a global shift away from community towards individualism. What does this mean for international law, the obligations to protect and democratic resilience now and into the future?

Dr Stacey Henderson, Senior Lecturer in Law, Flinders University

Aaron Fellmeth, Dennis S Karjala Professor of Law, Science and Technology, Arizona State University


With the rise of neoliberalism, there has been a societal shift away from community and the collective, towards individualism. Social psychologists have observed growing individualism across a broad range of societies over the past decades, with deteriorating effects on mental health. This increased concern with self also brings with it a reduction in social capital, an increase in interpersonal violence against the ‘other’, and a breakdown in the sense of belonging to a broader community with its expected standards of behaviour. By increasing the importance of the individual, the influence of community in tempering anti-social and violent behaviour is decreased.

Against this backdrop, the risk of descent into mass violence and genocide increases, particularly when fuelled by a rise in hate speech. Internal violence undermines the security of the state and risks a shift to authoritarianism. Sustaining peace requires a common vision of society, respect for the needs of all segments of the population, social cohesion, and respect for the rule of law.

To counter the threat posed by extreme individualism, states have a responsibility to build and maintain community as part of their obligation to protect their population, stemming from both the responsibility to protect (R2P) and international human rights law (IHRL).

Obligation to protect under R2P

The adoption of R2P at the United Nations World Summit in 2005, was a significant turning point in the protection of populations from atrocity crimes. Building on earlier work of Deng and colleagues at the Brookings Institution, R2P rests on a redefinition of sovereignty which includes the primary duty of a state to protect its population. Paragraph 138 of the World Summit Outcome Document includes the commitment to prevent atrocity crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. Even states wary of the concept of R2P accept this primary duty to protect their own population.

By building and maintaining community and social cohesion and fostering respect for human rights, states can reduce internal violence and prevent atrocity crimes within their borders. In doing so, states can reduce the cost to the state, and uphold their commitment to protect their populations from harm.

Obligation to protect under IHRL

The French Revolution of 1789 provided a foundation for modern IHRL through its three pillars: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The last, best translated as “community,” is relatively neglected in public discussions of human rights. As a result, IHRL is commonly conceived, and sometimes criticized, as a system of individualistic entitlements. However, in both structure and doctrine, IHRL is a complex system that includes not only specific rights, but broad state duties of good governance, which do not necessarily correlate to individual entitlements.

Such duties include the elimination of sexist, racist, and stereotyping behaviour; the protection of children from exploitation; and increased economic development. One idea underlying these obligations is that individual rights can only receive adequate protection if supported by positive public attitudes of tolerance, egalitarianism, and respect for human dignity.

The concept is articulated in the very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that all human beings “should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” – in our terms, community. It is also evident in article 28, which states that all persons are “entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” That social order cannot be one of anarchy or public apathy toward human dignity.

Some treaty and declaration provisions are explicitly rooted in communal interests, such as article 29 of the Universal Declaration or article XXIX of the American Declaration. Although these provisions have little legal force, they emphasize the interest of the state in imposing necessary and proportionate limitations on individual rights to serve legitimate public aims, which includes restoring social cohesion. They also imply a duty on the state to develop social capital for the protection and promotion of human rights among civil society.

Democratic resilience requires community

The shift of focus toward individual rights and freedoms, and away from communal responsibilities, brings far-reaching, and increasingly lethal, social consequences. During COVID-19 pandemic, many groups in Canada, the United States, Europe, and other countries protested public health measures known to save lives, such as mandatory use of face masks and vaccinations.

Similarly, powerful lobbying groups in the United States have led Congress to consistently reject reasonable gun control legislation in deference to a right to own personal firearms, despite overwhelming evidence that the result will be more murders, accidents, and mass shootings of children. The force of moral responsibility to protect other members of one’s community has proved inadequate to influence a growing number of persons with an ideology of extreme individualism.

Aside from the state’s responsibility under international law, it is in its interests to shift away from individualism and build and maintain community. Not only is this an important part of building democratic resilience, it reduces the effort needed by the state to maintain internal peace and security by reducing internal violence and reducing the risk of outbreaks of mass violence and atrocity crimes.

Further Reading

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by General Assembly Resolution 217 A(III) (10 December 1948)

2005 World Summit Outcome Document, GA Res 60/1, UN GAOR, 60th sess, 8th plen mtg, Agenda Items 46 and 120,Supp No 49, UN Doc A/RES/60/1 (24 October 2005, adopted 16 September 2005) paras 138–139

Stacey Henderson, Atrocity Crimes and International Law: Responsibility to Protect, Intercession, and Non-Forceful Responses (Routledge, 2022)

Aaron Fellmeth and Siobhán McInerney-Lankford, ‘International Human Rights Law and the Concept of Good Governance’ (2002) 44 Human Rights Quarterly 1-37

Dr Stacey Henderson is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Flinders University

Stacey researches and teaching in areas including the protective capacity of law, the responsibility to protect (R2P) and the use of measures less than force to help to protect populations. Stacey also has extensive experience in governance and law for outer space and space technology.

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Aaron Fellmeth is a Professor of Law at Arizona State University

Aaron is the Dennis S. Karjala Professor of Law at Arizona State University. Aaron has practiced public international law and international business law for seven years before joining the ASU law faculty.

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