Academic Papers

Are Human Rights Universal?

Since the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights have become deeply embedded in the structural order of the international arena. It comes as no surprise then, that it has fallen under stark scrutiny since its beginning. The declaration states the right to life, freedom from discrimination and equality under the law as a fundamental part of their natural entitlements. The universalism of these rights is highly contested by cultural relativists; they claim that norms are encoded in and thus only applicable to the cultures out of which they arise. Relativists argue that human rights can only apply within the confines of the West, being the culture from which they emerged. Whilst it has been challenging to reach a compromise, between the ongoing battle for a prevailing paradigm in this field, the tension between universalists and cultural relativists should be constructive in breeding new insights into this field. Human rights are neither entirely universal or relativist. Whilst the language of human rights, up till now is expressed through a Western lens, the ideals they are comprised of are found in all corners of the globe. Deserting these two limited binary terms of universalism and relativism would aid us in strengthening our theoretical understanding of human rights as a concept. The aim of this essay is therefore to critique the inconsistencies arising within both concepts.

One critical concern cultural relativists have is that human rights are an inherently imperialistic concept. The support for the universalism of human rights, working alongside the forces of globalisation, has been utilised by powerful states as an imperialist instrument of aggressive foreign policy to further their own strategic political and economic interests. Western powers invaded Iraq under the premise of humanitarian intervention, masking commercial interests within the language of human rights. Business contractors reaped $138 from the war, with Anglo-American oil conglomerates such as BP signing 20-year contracts covering 60 million barrels of oil in the wake of the invasion. This demonstrates imperialistic desires, in conjunction with mechanisms of globalisation and more specifically the movement of capital to business contractors, to be the cause of invasion rather than the cause of human rights.

It is understandable that relativists would interlink enforcement with the nature of the concept of human rights. However, the enforcement of human rights and its subsequent exploitation by dominant powers with imperialistic aims does not deem the concept itself to be that of an imperialist one. Whilst the legacy of imperialism is still thriving, the misuse of human rights as a justification does not implicate the ideals set out in the human rights framework. The narrative of imperialism has been pushed too far into this field by advocators of cultural relativism who are guilty of confusing enforcement with the concept of human rights. Furthermore, there exists an inconsistency on a global scale with regards to the implementation of human rights. Landmark documents covering human rights principles have historically been written and released by the elite of society starting with the Magna Carta in 1215, written by King John of England. Perhaps the fact that humanitarian legal documents have long been written by privileged members of society goes some way in explaining the inconsistencies in the implementation of human rights laws. The legacy of this tradition can still be felt today, where the conflict in The Democratic Republic of Congo which led to the loss of around six million lives between 1994-2003 with brutal human rights violations occurring daily, has seen little in the way of international outcry for the implementation of human rights. This contrasts with the global traction gained by the LGBT movement emanating from Western societies. The universalism of human rights is not in fact judged upon a universal standard by those themselves that purport its universalism. However, the degrees of importance placed upon the rights of different regions of the world does not implicate the concept itself. Whilst the importance of differing peoples’ human rights is not equally considered on a universal scale, this does not render the concept as non-universal.

The well-intentioned liberalism of cultural relativists has pushed them to a point of providing moral justification for states to commit violations against the citizens in which they have a duty to protect. Rather than being a fixed concept, culture is fluid with diverse porous boundaries as there are many contestations between individuals within society which lead to cultural transitions. Contestations often arise out of violations being perpetrated against minorities. An apt demonstration of this is the discrimination that the Shia minority face in Saudi Arabia where they openly contest the state with demands for the right to be treated equally. By asserting that human rights are relative only to culture, cultural relativists inadvertently position the autonomy of government above the autonomy of the individual as a wider member of the human race. Applying cultural relativism to the international order would only embolden oppressive states who would cease to be held accountable for human rights violations.

Whilst the language of human rights is expressed through a Western perspective, the principles of human dignity are not confined to the West. The ideals set out by human rights are not culturally exclusive. Powers in the West have indeed secured a monopoly over human rights through formulating, documenting, and institutionalising the notion. It is imperative to acknowledge the diverse nuances of values that different cultures entail. A few of these differences on the surface include the greater emphasis on the inter-dependence on society in most non-Western cultures. For instance, African societies do not operationalise or view human rights in the same manner. The enactment of human rights more closely echoes that of Western ideas of the heavy emphasis on individualism, rather than that of non-Western cultures who perceive the individual to be a figure forming a part of a bigger societal structure, such as the family unit or community. However, the concept of community does not negate the importance of human dignity and values deriving from that, as individuals are those that form the basis of a community. If one commits an act that goes against the values of human dignity within these societies, they are violating conduct codes and standards held by their community and thus fundamental standards of humanitarian values remain applicable. These principles are essentially manifestations of different conceptions of human rights and whilst the legal conception of human rights contains Western imprints, the fundamentals of human rights remain widespread and have a basis in all societies historically. The acknowledgment that culture entails ethical associations need not challenge the credibility of universal ethical and moral codes, nor does distinctions between cultures infer cultural relativism.

Both universalists and relativists alike make similar mistakes in stating that human rights ideals originated in the West. Universalists contradict themselves while asserting that human rights are a universal concept which should be applicable to every culture. On the other hand, they declare that these principles stem solely from Athenian democracy and are an exclusive production of western civilisation. Advocates of this line of argument remain universalist only with regards to the applicability of human rights, but ironically remain relativist when concerned with the roots of human rights. It is this approach which has perhaps caused cultural relativists to brandish universalists as imperialists desiring to propel their version of civilisation onto others.

The capacity for human rights values can be seen in non-Western civilisations even in prehistoric times. After the successful conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE, the emperor of the Iranian dynastic empire released a proclamation containing values within it that foreshadow the fundamental principles of contemporary day human rights. The values professed by Cyrus the Great embraced that of peace, freedom of religion, protection of civilians and of property. Cyrus’ stance towards these values goes beyond mere tolerance as he declares that he ‘took great care to peacefully protect the city of Babylon and its cult places’. To further this, he reversed the actions of the ruler before him whom he believed had held the citizens of Babylon ‘subservient in a manner totally unsuited to them’ by ‘loosening their burden’ once Babylon was under his rule.  Cyrus’ all-encompassing approach to the freedom of practice in religion illustrates support for equality and a premature form of human rights law which aims to free people from discrimination on the grounds of religion. When placed into the context of his time, Cyrus’ stance is seen to be even more remarkable in an era of conquest where emperors would showcase their might through the use of force, destruction and coercion. Twenty-five centuries post Cyrus’ declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was released, enshrining the concept that every man and woman had ‘the right to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’ as propelled in Cyrus’ proclamation, demonstrating how the values professed by the Iranian emperor in human relations transcended time and relativity.

In conclusion, the ideals of human dignity exist universally; both in its origins and in its ethical connotations. However, universalism as a concept is lacking of recognition for the origins of these shared humanitarian values rooted in all cultures. Their belief, in the exceptionalism of human rights to the western civilisation, could be perceived as demeaning the capacity of human rights within other cultures. Some universalists are also limited in their lack of flexibility on certain social issues, in regards to second-rate nuances. Cultural adaptability should be taken to account and not rigidly dismissed according to the values of the West whereby universalists presume that all values in human beings from varying cultures should be that of an identical nature. On the other hand, cultural relativists take their position too far by providing oppressive states with the moral justification for not enforcing human rights and could thus be potentially putting the nature of human rights protections in danger. The core codes of human rights are indispensable entitlements owed to human beings by virtue of them being human, and are not culture specific.

By Fatima Khoei


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