Universal Characters Of Human Rights

One of the most essential characteristics of human rights is universality. The concept of universality has been analyzed, discussed, and used in several contexts and different ways by various scholars. This argument gives rise to the debate between realists and nominalists. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary simply defines the word ‘universal’ (universus) as a general term or concept having universal effect or application at all times and in all places. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the word ‘universal’ means a quality or property which each individual member of a class of things must possess. It further explains that universals are the qualities of individual things, or particulars. For example, the quality of redness (a universal) is possessed by all red objects (which are particulars). However, in other ways universals are quite unlike particulars. For example, redness, unlike red objects, cannot be picked up. [1]

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Michael J. Loux underlines that in metaphysics, a universal is what particular things have in common, namely characteristics or qualities. He analyses three major kinds of qualities or characteristics of universality basing on realist’s view: i) types or kinds to which things belong (e.g. mammal); ii) properties which they possess (e.g. short, strong); and iii) relations into which they enter (e.g. father of, next to). These are all different types of universal. It is known as shared entitles universals. [2] For St. Thomas Aquinas, the word “universal” can be considered in two ways:

“the universal nature may be considered together with the intention of universality – viz. the relation of one and the same to many;

the universal can be considered in the nature itself, for stance, animality or humanity as existing in the individual.” [3]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the word “universal” in the sense of “according to the totality” or “in keeping with the whole.” [4] Hence, each particular Church is “universal” to which all men are called and belong in different ways. [5]

Human rights advocates maintain that if human rights are the rights that belong to everyone regardless of sex, race, color or religion, simply because one is a human being, then they are universal by definition itself. It clearly states in the article one of UDHR: “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Mary Ann Glendon, the author of “The World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” notes:

“The title ‘universal’ meant that the declaration was morally binding on everyone, and not only on the governments that voted for its adoption. The universal declaration, in other words, was not an ‘international’ or ‘intergovernmental’ document; it was addressed to all humanity and founded on a unified conception of the human being.” [6]

In his work on “The Future of Human Rights”, Upendra Baxi places the concept of universality in a Hegalian context. For Hegel, the combination of universality and particularity is already implicit in the moment of abstract universality, in the same way as a tree trunk and branches are implicit in a seed. So, referring to Hegel’s method, Baxi uses the synthesis of abstract universality and abstract particularity which brings about concrete universality so that we may understand the concept of ‘universality’ of human rights more easily. He logically connects Hegalian method with the concept of universal human rights by distinguishing three “moments”: first, the UDHR is addressed to every human being; it is the objective movement of abstract universality; second, it is particularized by the series of norms such as worker’s rights, women’s rights, rights of children, or right to life; third, the concrete universality can be achieved where rights and man meet in his life. [7] However, nominalists do not agree with realists’ idea about the concept of universality and conceptualists accept it partly.

Objection of Universality

The question of whether universals exist is a tricky logical one. The rationalists believe that universals are real and they exist independently, whereas the nominalists believe that all that is real is particular, and therefore, universals are just words which at best apply to resemblances among real things. The conceptualists believe that universals exist as concepts. Antifoundationalists [8] argue that –

“Universal human rights are simply impossible because what counts as “human” and as rights belonging to humans, are context-bound and tradition-dependent. There is no transcultural fact or being that may be called “human” to which universal human rights may be attached.” [9]

And yet, there are still various objections to the concept of human rights as universal. In her article ‘History of Universal Human Rights – up to WW2,’ Moira Rayner denies the idea of human rights as universal although she maintains that human rights are rights possessed by people simply because they are human beings. She says,

“The idea of human rights is not universal – it is essentially the product of 17th and 18th century European thought and even the idea of ‘rights’ does not necessarily exist in every society or advanced civilization. Universal human rights are, historically, the flower of what was originally a European plant.” [10]

For Blair Gibb, human rights are not necessarily universal because he argues that the rights established by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights may not be applied to all nations. He then points out that even those nations that have singed it, and in practice they still have limitations and difficulties to realize them fully in their own territories. Furthermore, he argues that the UDHR pushes western values that are not always agreeable to eastern nations. He gives an example that civil or political rights such as the right to criticize the government openly or complete freedom of opinion and expression, threaten cohesive Asian societies. For him, the UDHR is a bit idealistic and it is better applied more to developed nations than developing nations. [11]

According to Raimundo Panikkar, [12] “the concept of human rights is a Western conception and it is not a universal concept.” [13] However, he does not mean that we should abandon the responsibility of declaring or enforcing human rights. He accepts that human rights can bring an authentic human life in this contemporary world and the defense of human rights is a sacred duty. For him, “no concept as such is universal. Each concept is valid primarily where it was conceived.” [14] To put it in the other way, although the word “God” is universally used in all contexts of world religions, its concept is different from one another, because humankind presents a plurality of universal discourses. Panikkar believes that there should be at least two conditions to be fulfilled in order to make the concept of human rights become universally valid: (i) it should eliminate all the other contradictory concepts and (ii) it should be the common point of reference for any problem regarding human dignity. [15]

In order to clarify the debate on whether human rights are universal or not, the 1993 Vienna Declaration reaffirms the universal character of human rights as follow:

“All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.” [16]

The Vienna Declaration invites the international community to treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis; and to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

At the opening ceremony of the World Conference on Human Rights in1993, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, emphasizes on the important of the common essence of universality and underlines how human rights are necessarily to be common standard for all members of the international community. He invites the international communities to go beyond one’s own culture and values in order to realize the true meaning of human rights in one’s life, as he states,

“The human rights that we proclaim and seek to safeguard can be brought about only if we transcend ourselves, only if we make a conscious effort to find our common essence beyond our apparent divisions, our temporary differences, our ideological and cultural barriers.” [17]

Human Rights as a Common Language of Humanity

Generally people accept that human rights are the product of history and they are born from historical events. The word ‘right’ exists sine ancient time. In history, Egyptian, Geek, Roman and the like were known as great lawmakers who published codex of various laws and established series of rights and duties. The world’s religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism, have also established moral codes of conducts based on divine law or teaching in order to protect the rightful behavior of the people so that there might be peace in human society. These principles and laws are generally based on human dignity and concerned with responsibilities of man to his fellow men, to governors, to the nature, to God and to the whole creation. Then, as time passes by, the constant changing world has been always shaping social system and political order, sweeping away old regimes, old rivalries and old obstacles and replacing them with new system and ideas. Autocracy decreases and democracy increases. Awareness of one’s won rights and freedom is stronger and stronger. The people learn from the failures of the past and look for a better and peaceful society.

The age of colonization is a good example to point out how the language of human rights is extended to the oppressed people. In that period, there were some human rights advocates who defended for the rights of indigenous people. For example:

Bartolome De Las Casas (1484-1566), Spanish historian and Dominican missionary in the Americans, opposed the oppression of the Indian by European and called for the abolition of Indian slavery. [18] He defended against the ill treatment of native peoples by the Spanish colonists and advocated before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor on behalf of rights for the natives. His intentions are: to stop the suppression of all encomienda [19] ; to liberate the Indians from all forms of slaves; to restore the ancient Indian states and rulers; and to have the rightful owners of those lands. [20]

Francisco de Vitoria (1485-1546), Spanish theologian, was best known for his defense of the rights of the Indians of the New World against Spanish colonists and for his ideas of the limitations of justifiable warfare. He was also known as one of international law pioneers because he contributed the theory of just war and international law. [21]

Anthropologists such as Sally Engle Merry presume that the treaty of Westphalia (1648) is the foundation for the language of international human rights law. It is a series of peace treaties [22] and agreements among European states which end the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) in Europe. As result, these treaties and agreements gave birth to a new system of political order in central Europe, i.e., the system of sovereign state governed by a sovereign. During this period, international law and affairs were based on the notion of state sovereignty. However, the treaties did not restore peace throughout Europe because France and Spain remained at war for the next eleven years. But the Peace of Westphalia at least created a basis for international legal norms or the language of international human rights law. [23]

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UDHR which has become a universal standard for the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. This adoption is a clear affirmation of the international coexistence which is commonly based on human dignity and respect for all people’s rights in everywhere. However, some criticize that the Universal Declaration was politically impossible during the Cold War to meet both civil or political rights and social or economic rights. Western human rights law focused on political and civil rights such as the right to freedom of speech or religion and so on, whereas socialist and communist countries focused on economic and social rights such as the rights to work, food, housing, etc. International human rights law, however, has developed a dominant language of global justice that ends the cleavages dominant during the Cold War.

Today, the language of human rights has become the language common to all humanity, a global lingua franca addressing social, political, cultural and economic issues worldwide. It is shifted from political discourse to a more unified language of global justice. It is a language that guides every human being in an era of globalization. Mary Robinson, the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, once said that:

“All of us, in our different forms of expression, can speak the ‘common language of humanity,’ the language of human rights, which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” [24]

As the World Conference on Human Rights began on 14 June 1993, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, gave the opening statements to the assembled diplomats as follow:

“Human rights should be viewed not only as the absolute yardstick which they are, but also as a synthesis resulting from a long historical process.

As an absolute yardstick, human rights constitute the common language of humanity. Adopting this language allows all peoples to understand others and to be the authors of their own history. Human rights, by definition, are the ultimate norm of all politics.

As an historical synthesis, human rights are, in their essence, in constant movement. By that I mean that human rights have a dual nature. They should express absolute, timeless injunctions, yet simultaneously reflect a moment in the development of history. Human rights are both absolute and historically defined.” [25]

However, there are some politicians who use the term “human rights” in a very narrow sense for their own benefits. As a result of misinterpretation of the term, the UDHR becomes no worth than “bourgeois rights” or “Western rights.” Some argue that the fundamental idea of human rights does not go along with the specific characteristics of local or regional cultures and customs. For some, recognizing human rights differently in different contexts according to one’s own culture and custom is a better solution for all. But the article 27 of the UDHR proves that the language of the declaration does not exhibit any cultural preference since human rights are a common language of humanity.