Are Human Rights ‘Universal’?

Human rights use to be a domestic issue championed by its proponents with each state separately, however, this has grown drastically and relatively quickly into a movement that asserts that these human rights are universal and all human beings are born with them. However this essay will argue that human rights are not universal due to their nature being bound up in charters which are not seen as Universalist but in many instances are seen as Western championed beliefs. However, the universality of human rights lays with the strength of the popular support for universal human rights, therefore, if the ideas in which universal human rights are founded on flourish then this can outweigh all its shortcomings. The first paragraph in this essay will focus on the extent to which the idea and norms of universal human rights has flourished. This essay will then critique human rights from a cultural perspective arguing that human rights are not universal due to their being conflict between the rights of the individuals and the rights of groups. Finally this essay will argue that the lack of adherence to these so called universal human rights (especially by western states) have dealt a huge blow to the notion of their being universal human rights.

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In order to look at the question of whether human rights are universal we have to analyse the extent to which the norms and ideas of human rights are universal. Today these rights exists within the legal system of international charters and domestic constitutions, however in the past human rights were seen as ‘natural laws’ which were not bound by any legal system, state or civilization as these were our God given rights. However, from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) onwards the ideas of human rights have grown into the acceptance by most nations that there are inherent human rights which people are born with such as the right to life. It is argued today that international human rights ‘have become constitutive elements of modern and “civilised” statehood (Risse-Kappen, 2002: 234). States did not sign up to the human rights declaration in 1948 due to their synonymous beliefs but instead they agreed because they believed the material benefits would outweigh its disadvantages and that they would be allowed to pull out whenever they wished. However, the international norms surrounding the human rights regime grew to the extent that these nations became entrenched into the regime due to the growth in the norms and ideas of human rights in the international society. However much the human rights regime has grown today and become the popular belief of Western societies it is not universal as it has failed to gain a strong foothold in non western territories and cultures.

It is argued by critics of the universalism of human rights that human rights are deeply rooted in Western liberal tradition, both historically and culturally. In order for human rights to be universal it is essential that human rights stretches beyond all borders cultures and religions, however, human rights today is very Eurocentric. Cultural theorists

‘critique the existing human rights corpus as culturally exclusive in some respects and therefore view parts of it as illegitimate or, at the very least, irrelevant in non-western societies… they do not believe that a genuine universal human rights truth can be constructed from any one single culture.’ (Mutua, 2002:43)

This cultural theorist argument is very convincing as human rights today needs to be reformed with a multicultural approach in order to make it more universal.

The universalist theory of human rights is based on a Western philosophy and it centres around the individual. These theorists argue for a set of rights which they are born with and pre exist society. ‘Since the late eighteenth century it has become a commonplace in liberal societies to assert that individuals possess rights… that are inalienable and unconditional’ (Brown 1999: 104). With the foundations of the human rights regime being individualistic it has alienated big groups whom do not conform to some of those rights. These contradictions can be found in religious groups. Saudi Arabia Abstained from the vote on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN in 1948 due to Article 18 contravening both Saudi laws (practising other religions within Saudi Arabia) but also the tenants of Islam which does not recognise the right to apostasy. This shows that certain human rights may be seen as rights for the West however other nations or groups of people may not deem those rights as rights at all. Huntington stresses the contradiction between the word and deed of Westerners, when he says

“Non-Westerners … do not hesitate to point to the gaps between Western principle and Western action. Hypocrisy, double standards, and ‘but nots’ are the price of universalist pretensions. … human rights are an issue for China but not with Saudi Arabia; … Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle.” (1996: 184)

Islam at the moment is not compatible with the international human rights regime as there are many contradictions between the two. As Huntington says there are a lot of double standards’ in the international community which give special provisions to certain countries which are deemed to be friends of the West such as Saudi Arabia. This shows how human rights are not universal but instead mainly Western and gaps between human rights and Islam will remain unless there is a big overhaul in the regime and human rights are created with a better understanding of different cultures, religions and ideological values.

One major critique of the universalism of human rights is the contemporary problem of compliance. As discussed previously there are many double standards on the issue of human rights with certain countries being allowed to get away with non adherence, however, when Western nations are also not adhering the consensus on the universalism of human rights is challenged and deeply wounded. Take for example the war on terror today. There are a few fundamental questions to be asked. When does a government go too far in evading people’s rights? What rights can be evading for the greater good? Can governments find a way to respect human rights whilst fighting the so called war on terror? If there was a set answer for these questions one could argue that

When it comes to the war on terror the rules and beliefs of human rights are effectively thrown out of the window. Civilians came under attack with practices such as renditions and torture in places such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib without access to lawyers or courts. When many people talk about the USA today it is hard not to get images of Jack Bauer the counter terrorism agent out of 24 torturing people and breaking the law continually. This lack of adherence by the USA which is the sole hegemonic power today and the leader of the free world has been one of the main reasons for human rights not being universal.

“Seven years after 9/11 it is time to take stock and repeal abusive laws and policies,” the former Irish president said, warning that harsh U.S. detentions and interrogations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba gave a dangerous signal to other countries that could easily follow suit. (Reuters, accessed 22nd March)

This is now the case with many countries using the facade of the war on terror to hide their own internal human rights abuses as the ‘United States and its western allies are turning a blind eye to abuses in friendly countries in return for their support in the campaign against terror.’ (BBC News, accessed 22nd March)

Today extreme human rights violations are seen as being a matter for the international community through institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC’s indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir is a fundamental step for the eventual universality of human rights (International Crises Group, accessed 22nd March). However it is still important to note that even though this was a big step the ICC and this road to the universality of human rights is still far away as one can argue that with three of the VETO powers in the UN (China, USA and Russia) and no major Asian power signing up to the ICC, there is still a long way to go in ensuring that the human rights regime is seen outside of the West as being legitimate, universal and representative.

This essay has argued throughout that human rights are not universal. The first paragraph in this essay focused on the extent to which the idea and norms of universal human rights has flourished. It then critiqued human rights from a cultural perspective arguing that human rights are not universal due to their being conflict between the rights of the individuals and the rights of groups. This essay finally argued that the lack of adherence to these so called universal human rights have dealt a huge blow to the notion of their being universal human rights.

BBC News, War on terror ‘curbing human rights’, 22nd March 2010,
Brown, Chris, (1999), “Universal Human Rights: A Critique”, in Dunne, Tim and J. Wheeler, Nicholas, Human Rights in Global Politics, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Huntington, Samuel P. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster International Crises Group, The ICC Indictment of Bashir: A turning point for Sudan?, 22nd March 2010,
Mutua, Makau (2002), Human Rights, A Political & Cultural Critique, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press Reuters, U.S. “war on terror” eroded rights worldwide: experts, 22nd March 2010,
Risse-Kappen, Thomas, (2002), The power of human rights: International Norms and Domestic Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press