Are Human Rights Universal?

Even in our globalizing world, the question as to whether "human rights" is an essentially Western concept, which ignores the very different cultural, economic, and political realities of the South, persists. Can the values of a consumer society be applied to societies with nothing to consume? At the risk of sounding frivolous: When you stop a man in traditional dress from beating his wife, are you upholding her human rights or violating his?


The fact is that a number of serious objections exist to the concept of universal human rights, which its defenders need to acknowledge - honestly - if only to refute them.

The first objection argues that all rights and values are defined and limited by cultural perceptions; there is no universal culture, therefore there are no universal human rights. Some philosophers object that the concept of human rights is founded on an individualistic view of man as an autonomous being whose greatest need is to be free from interference by the state, imbued, as it were, with the right to be left alone. Non-Western societies often espouse a communitarian ethic that sees society as more than the sum of its individual members, and considers duties to be more important than rights.

Then there is the usual North/South argument, with "human rights" cast as a cover for Western intervention in the developing world. Developing countries, some also argue, cannot afford human rights, since the tasks of nation-building and economic development remain unfinished; suspending or limiting human rights thus sacrifices the few to benefit the many.

Others object to specific rights which they say reflect Western cultural bias, the most troublesome here being women's rights. How can women's rights be universal when, in some societies, marriage is seen not as a contract between two individuals but as an alliance between lineages, and when the permissible behavior of women is central to a society's perception of familial honor?

In addition, some religious leaders argue that human rights can be acceptable only if they are founded on the transcendent values of faith and are thus sanctioned by God. There is a built-in conflict between the universality of human rights and the particularity of religious perspectives.

How to respond to these objections? Concepts of justice and law, legitimacy and dignity, protection from oppressive rule, and participation in community affairs are found in every society; the challenge facing human rights advocates is to identify the common denominators, and not throw up their hands at the impossibility of universalism.

These objections reflect a false opposition between the primacy of the individual and the paramountcy of society. Culture is too often cited as a defence against human rights by authoritarians who crush culture whenever it suits them. Besides, which country can claim to be following its pure "traditional culture"? You cannot follow the model of a "modern" nation-state cutting across tribal boundaries and conventions, and then argue that tribal traditions should be applied to judge the state's human-rights conduct.

There is nothing sacrosanct about culture anyway. Culture constantly evolves in any living society, responding to both internal and external stimuli, and societies outgrow and reject much in every culture.

Let us concede that child marriage, female circumcision, and the like are not found reprehensible by many societies; but let us also ask the victims of these practices how they feel. Where coercion exists, rights are violated, and these violations must be condemned whatever the traditional justification. Coercion, not culture, is the test.

As for religion, every religion embodies certain verities that are applicable to all mankind - justice, truth, mercy, compassion - and men often allow God to be blamed for their own sins. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it, the problem is not with the faith, but with the faithful.

As for suspending human rights in the interests of development, authoritarianism promotes repression, not development. Development is about change, but repression prevents change. Though there may be cases where authoritarian societies had success in achieving economic growth, Botswana, an exemplar of African democracy, has grown faster than most authoritarian states.

A number of developing countries – notably India, China, Chile, Cuba, Lebanon, and Panama – played an active and influential part in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The principles of human rights have been widely adopted, imitated, and ratified by developing countries, so it is hardly fair to suggest that they have been imposed on them.

When one hears of the unsuitability or ethnocentricism of human rights, what are these human rights that someone in a developing country can do without? The right to life? Freedom from torture? The right not to be enslaved, not to be physically assaulted, not to be arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, or executed? No one actually advocates the abridgement of any of these rights.

Objections to the applicability of human-rights standards are all too frequently voiced by authoritarian rulers and power elites to rationalize violations that keep them in power. Just as the Devil can quote scripture for his purpose, Third World communitarianism can be the slogan of a deracinated tyrant trained, as in the case of Pol Pot, at the Sorbonne. The authentic voices of the South know how to cry out in pain. Those are the voices that must be heeded.