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On the universal nature of human rights

It is almost impossible to establish with certainty the cultural origin of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is, and will surely remain, a dividing matter. In terms of its form, it is highly indebted to the traditionally European and more broadly western quasi-obsession with individual rights1. However, it is also the expression of an international concern for those rights, especially in the light of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during the Second World War2. It is then truly the expression of both continuity - that of western liberal democracy - and rupture - the brutal and general condemnation by the international community of the practices of Germany and Japan towards peoples of occupied territories as well as their own.

The purpose and ambition of such a universal text was not only to defend but also really to unite human kind on egalitarian terms. The aim was to "create a declaration of universally accepted norms and standards of human rights"3. As universal, it stood as the expression of the different philosophies, religions, and cultural and political systems that the world had to offer. Representatives of all nations sat around several tables for more than three years and, with the same diligence thoroughly debated these matters. What they achieved they felt would become the most cherished companion of any human being, regardless of its nationality, sex, ethnicity and social status.

However, the reigning harmony might have only been apparent. Indeed, many argue that several factors appeared at such an early stage, and began to undermine the universal character claimed by the declaration. If one is to believe Kirsten Sellars, the achievement of the committee who finally voted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a succession of egoistic and petty victories, well remote from the "spirit of brotherhood" praised by its first article4.

This argument has two foundations. Firstly, during the three years that lasted the process and despite a common goal, it is likely that the main concern of each representative of every country was to defend some sort of national interest. Secondly, because of the presence of representatives from their own colonies one is entitled to believe that the Western World was somehow over-represented.

On the same line, and because the origin of its formulation can be found in such documents as Britain's Magna Carta, the US' Declaration of Independence and France's Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen, many claimed that Human Rights were the product of one "political culture, that of parliamentary democracy"5. Therefore, to impose this conception of right onto other cultures became a form of imperialism6.

Another line of conflict is when it comes to emphasising certain rights over others. Human Rights are of two main natures. On the one hand are civil and political rights. On the other hand are social and economic rights. When it comes to states, to emphasise one kind over the other is to take an ideological stance. Liberal democracies favour civil and political rights while socialist countries most value social and economic rights. This latter argument also has other implications, which bring out more ambiguities out of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Indeed, in order to respect its function as "guardian of the interests of the workers", the socialist state needs "absolute sovereignty"7. The direct consequence is for its actions to escape international control. This, indeed, generates an ambiguous situation as the declaration stand as an international charter meant to reach every country behind the curtain of their national sovereignty. It emphasises that Human Rights are the strong international laws of a feeble or non-existent judiciary body. As Malcolm Water writes it, "when it was signed the Universal Declaration of Human rights of 1948 was a purely nominal document, a commitment to a set of principles that were unenforceable"8. Similarly, certain states are ill-equipped rather than ill-disposed to implement certain rights. In these cases, the universal character of the declaration becomes a simple objective, a mere pretension.

The debate has become that of Universalism against Cultural Relativism. In practical terms, the question then is not so much should the Human Rights be Universal, but rather, could they be? The schism between Cultural Relativists, and Universalists begins with the definition of Human Nature. The former criticise the latter for claiming that there is such a unified conception of humanity and that it is globally embraced. This idea is embedded in the western concept of Natural Law and disregards the essential fact that situations are context-dependent9. Many a mistake has been made by people lacking the ability, or the will, to put things into perspective.

As the debate is about Human Rights it is impossible for any party to drop its position. Where Cultural Relativists see Western hegemony, Universalists keep counting Human Rights abuses across the world. In that miasma, arguably one of the most enlightening and sensible positions is that of Chris Brown who stresses that the only way to see Human Rights universally respected is to let them imposes themselves as a cultural product rather than as a political and legal order10.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948 came hand in hand with the establishment of the new international body that was the United Nation. When the Second World War came to an end, the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime and embodied by the concentration camps became clear for all to see. It is out of this general disgust that the international community decided to unite and write a charter that would not only denounce these crimes but also protect future generations from a repeat. It was indeed, essentially "born out of the experience of the war that had just ended"11. It was nonetheless not a strictly altruist enterprise as it became increasingly clear that "regimes which treated their citizens abominably would (…) eventually pose a threat to other countries too"12.

However, if it was a rupture, it was also the continuity of the long concern for individual human rights of western societies. Occidental liberal democracies can trace their origin in various philosophies formulated in "Greek philosophy, Roman law, Judeo-Christian tradition, the humanism of Reformation and the Age of Reason"13. In this tradition, several popular movements had, in Western Europe and Northern America, lead to the formulation of certain human rights, marking the end of the despotism of the middle ages and the advent of modern democracy. These documents, still highly praised in their countries of origin, constitute the essence of civil and political rights, as their establishment was a direct reaction to oppression and tyranny.

The belief that underlies these texts is that of the rule of law. It is an attempt to put an end to arbitrary use of power and to create order by relying on a set of rules, both right and duty. To write such a universal and therefore international charter is to express the will to establish the rule of law internationally. It is also the ambition to establish that all human beings are part of the same family and are so on egalitarian terms. Indeed, the preamble of the declaration states that the:

"Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world"14.

It is hard to find out exactly in what capacity did the different committees genuinely attempt to write a document incorporating and according every human culture. It is possible that each representative only tried to preserve its national interest. It is nonetheless to be believed that they all had an equal say and that compromises were reached to suit the most. Every sentence of every article indeed, had to be voted by a majority. The main doubt remains when it comes to cultural - rather than national - representation as nations, from Belgium to India, are often hosts of several different cultures. However, the president of the committee, Eleanor Roosevelt, did believe - without a doubt genuinely - that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could "well become the Magna Carta of all men everywhere"15.

As an element of international law, Robertson and Merrills argue, it is the "most striking development (...) since the end of the Second World War"16. It is indeed an attempt to give the international community a set of rules to go by and refer to. The main implication is that nation states are now facing international approval or condemnation for everything that takes place inside their borders. To some extent, this should mark the end of the absolute sovereignty of nation states. This, however, can prove quite ambiguous as chapter XII of the United Nations Charter stresses that:

"Co-operation of states in the fields of human rights must be combined with unfailing observance of the principle of sovereign equality of states and of non-interference in the affairs which are essentially within their domestic jurisdiction"17.

This, if experience were not enough, emphasises why the declaration is a "common standard of achievement"18 rather than a factual international law.

Besides the question of national sovereignty, the declaration has been the object of much criticism. The main one is formulated around the nature and the character of "Universalism". From a western perspective, human rights - which are based on the natural law that says that human beings are equal in birth and rights - are bound to be universal. This is obviously a liberal view most associated with western societies and their emphasis on individual freedom. However, the cultural relativist argument is that there is nothing to verify the veracity of this position as humanity is a loose concept and therefore "to promote these rights is to promote that kind of society"19. This does not prove to be very different from the cultural and political hegemony exercised by the imperial powers from the renaissance to the middle of the 20th century.

Similarly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a combination of civil and political rights and, of social and economic rights. The tradition of Western liberal democracies has always been to emphasise the former. Indeed, the 1215 Magna Carta guarantees freedom from arbitrary "imprisonment and dispossession" while the French Declaration of Man and the Citizen of 1789 stress that "all men are born free and equal in rights" and that these rights are "liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression"20. By contrast the socialists' conception of rights shifts the balance of importance towards social and economic rights. In that context of imperative centralised planning, the socialist state has an essential need for national sovereignty in order to properly and uniformly secure "citizens' rights as state rights"21.

This argument has become a major one for countries such as China or Cuba in justifying human rights abuse. It is indeed easy to claim that civil and political rights are disregarded to the greater benefit of social and economic ones. The universality of human rights is then only an ambition. It is noble but for some countries the cause is lost in advance. Certain rights are ambiguous in their formulation and almost impossible to implement for the poorest countries. It is the case of paid holidays mentioned in article 24 of the declaration. David Manasian rightly suggest the futility of branding these countries "violators" since it is not a strictly deliberate violation22. This might seem to be a feeble argument as it is obvious that paid holidays are not the main concerns of the many Non Governmental Organisations trying to denounce human rights abuse. It is nonetheless a valid example of the limit of the universal character of the declaration.

The question remaining is to which extent should or could the international community attempt to see the Human Rights universally respected. For a starter one can contemplate the reason why several countries never signed the United Nations Charter. Among them, and most notoriously, is Saudi Arabia. The concept of a secular state might be obvious in western societies but it is far from being universally the case. In that respect, article 18 of the declaration, which stresses ";the freedom to change [one"s] religion or belief" goes against the Islamic precepts which rules as law in Saudi Arabia.

On another line, cultural relativists denounce the universal character of humanity as derived from natural law. This can sometimes be reduced to a linguistic issue but language remains arguably our best tool when it comes to communicating our belief to others. Richard A. Wilson mentions the example of some Native American tribes, namely Hopi and Navajo, for whom the concept of humanness is constructed around the community, and to whom outsiders are non-humans23. It seems obvious in that respect that human rights would be different than those of non-humans, even though somewhere else someone might disagree.

Similarly, cultural context might accentuate even more the problems linked to the linguistic of human rights. The different understanding of a concept might be of a cultural nature, of a linguistic nature, or both. David Kelly argues that when it comes to the language of freedom, "we still have little ground for assuming that the referents - the things meant - are entirely interchangeable between languages"24. He provides a better example of cultural difference when it comes to understanding certain concepts by quoting an interview in which Lee Kuan Yew comparing the USA to Asian societies argues that:

"The expansion of the rights of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society. In the East, the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedom"25.

This kind of argument, critics of the cultural relativists claim, can become handy to justify armed interventions in order to protect the "well-ordered" character of a given society. Events such as those of the students upraise of June 1989 on Tiananmen square are convincing examples that the cultural relativist argument can fuel the defence of blatant human rights abuses.

Another twist in the cultural relativism stance regards indigenous rights which arguments, John Gledhill claims "rest on special cases reasoning about the rights of indigenous people as colonised peoples"26. One might think that too much is made of minorities' rights. Aborigines in Australia are offered a relation to the land that is opposed to the notion of private property of capitalism. However, and this is where it might seem unfair to some, no one else in capitalist societies is offered the choice - as a right - of living a pre-industrial "agrarian lifestyle"27.

Nevertheless, if cultural relativism has clear limits, so does the Universalist claim. Cultural specificities are clear and visible throughout the world. As Chris Brown argues, human equality - as understood in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - is hard to implement in a caste system or in a family-orientated, rather than individual-orientated society28. It is also a case of non-western culture having to deal with western concepts. David Kelly emphasises the way, during the Vietnam War, "the South Vietnamese fought badly for [the American idea of] freedom and democracy" while "the North wanted [and obtained] freedom from foreign domination"29. This example of the different conceptions of freedom and their different level of importance is strikingly close to the present situation in Iraq where Iraqis, despite being liberated by American troops, have recently demonstrated with slogan such as "No Saddam, No Bush, Yes Yes Islam".

When it comes to universalism, one is entitled to believe that a compromise can be reached. As Robertson and Merrills argue, if basic standards are respected, uniformity might not be needed although "certain ideas and practices" would have to change30. The final word should however be given to Chris Brown whose view that "rights are best seen as a by-product of a functioning ethical community" rather than "a universal solution" might yet prove the most constructive on the long term.


If titles were all that matters, there would be no ambiguity about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would constitute the highest legal document and its scope would truly be universal. However, because there is no ultimate judiciary body to enforce it, the universal ambition falls flat. The aim was to create a universal document mainly because it could not have been otherwise. Human rights might be more often abused than respected, their knowledge is nonetheless universal and human right consciousness has increased over fifty years as a result. Countless NGO's have done a tremendous job of denouncing these abuses on a regular basis, giving backing and reasons for hope to the individuals who fight for these rights to be respected or at least recognised in the countries where they are not.

On the matter of whether or not there is need or room for universal human rights to be understood in a linear way, cultural relativists have come up with several arguments. From cultural specificity to indigenous right the debate remained centred around the validity of the notion of cultural exception and self-determinism as a right. It could all end up being a matter of ethics, leaving the political realm to enter the moral and philosophical ones. If this would prove to be the case, then, as always, to introduce the concept of utilitarianism - that is considering actions in terms of utility (obviously relative) rather than absolute ideas of right and wrong - despite some of its obvious implications, could sharpen the problem of ethics and raise the debates. It might be a good way to approach local cultures in the larger frame of the global culture of Human Rights.

1 Robertson A.H. and Merrills J.G. 1996; Brown C. in Dunne T. and Wheeler N.J. Ed 1999.

2 Morsink J. 1999.

3 Lauren P.G. 1998: 234.

4 Sellars K. 2002.

5 Robertson A.H. and Merrills J.G. 1996: 7.

6 In Manasian D. 1998: 9, and Brown C. in Dunne T. and Wheeler N.J. Ed 1999: 121.

7 Robertson A.H. and Merrills J.G. 1996: 10.

8 Waters M. 2001: 130.

9 Gledhill J. in Wilson R.A. 1997: 70.

10 Brown C. in Dunne T. and Wheeler N.J. Eds. 1999: 120-121.

11 Morsink J. 1999: 36.

12 Manasian D. 1998: 4.

13 Robertson A.H. and Merrills J.G. 1996: 2.

14 The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948: preamble, my italics.

15 In Lauren P.G. 1998: 237.

16 Robertson A.H. and Merrills J.G. 1996:1.

17 In Robertson A.H. and Merrills J.G. ibid. 10, my italics.

18 The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948: preamble.

19 Brown C. in Dunne T. and Wheeler N.J. Eds. 1999: 121.

20 In Robertson A.H. and Merrills J.G. 1996: 3.

21 Ibid. 9.

22 Manasian D. 1998: 9.

23 In Wilson R.A. Ed, 1997: 6.

24 In Kelly D. and Reid A. Eds. 1998: 4.

25 Ibid. 5.

26 Gledhill J. in Wilson R.A. Ed, 1997: 96.

27 Ibid.

28 Brown C. in Dunne T. and Wheeler N.J. Eds. 1999: 117.

29 Kelly D. in Kelly D. and Reid A. Eds. 1998: 1.

30 Robertson A.H. and Merrills J.G. 1996: 13.

Mmedo M. Duffort, London, March 2003.

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