Are Human Rights Universal

Human rights proponents assert that all human beings are guaranteed certain rights ranging from the right to life and freedom from torture to socio-economic rights such as the right to healthcare and education. The introduction of human rights is a fairly new phenomenon and can be traced back to the French revolution. More recently, following some of the worst events and atrocities of World War II such as the German concentration camps, the Japanese treatment of the Chinese and even the allied bombings of Dresden, the issue of human rights came to the fore of world concern.

The modern foundation of what people now view as human rights and the basis of 60 separate human rights instruments was established in the United Nations Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR) on the 10 December 1948. The declaration had big names behind it such as Eleanor Roosevelt who was a big proponent and it was drafted with the cooperation of several different countries not all developed countries but other third world countries such as Chile, Cuba and India partook in the drafting process as well, taking several years to complete.

The issue of human rights is often in the news, most recently with the protests in Tibet against Chinese rule and the worldwide protests which followed. According to the west, China has had a long running problem with human rights abuses, for example how it allows people to buy kidneys off political prisoners who have theirs removed without anaesthetic and are then sealed up in a bag and incinerated.[1] Surely that is abhorrent and a condemnation of such acts is the least of what should be done, yet on what basis do we even have the right to question another sovereign country’s handling of internal affairs?

William Rasch questions whether there can be any universality to human rights given the differences in culture, religion and how genders are treated differently around the world. He claims that “Such identification is not only the essence of Christianity, but also of the doctrine of human rights preached by enthusiasts like Habermas and Rawls. And such identification means that the other is stripped of his otherness and made to conform to the universal ideal of what it means to be human.” In this essay I first intend to examine whether Rasch’s claims about Christianity and religion. I will then see whether the human rights doctrine stands up to the differences betweenpeople created by culture, religion and gender.

Rasch’s accusation that Christianity and presumably other religion’s identify others with its own ‘ego ideal’ may have some adherents in today’s secular west. The two religion’s I am going to examine in view of Rasch’s claim are Christianity and Islam,the two biggest monotheistic religions in the world. In the past instances of Christian’s attempting to convert people they had conquered, for example Cortez trying to convert the Aztecs or the actions of Christian missionaries. Similar accusations can be made about Islam.

The public perception about religion in the west seems to be a generally negative one. Farhang Jahanpour, an associate of the transnational foundation for peace and future research, he asked his students to make a list of the differences between the west and islam. One of the points on the list one of the students came up with is that “Islam wants to dominate the world, the West believes in coexistence”. This I believe is the same point as Rasch makes. Although the actions of some adherents of these religion’s may give the impression that that is the case, the faith’s themselves do not seek to dominate the world but they do wish to teach their religion to the whole world. In the Qu’ran it is stated that “2:256

There is no compulsion in religion”. You can not force people to change religion as you can not control what is in their hearts. Christianity and Islam believe in divine law, They see religion as a major part of our lives and the governance thereof, they believe that the rules governing morality are laid out in the Bible and the Qu’ran, they honour tradition, support family life and are not hedonistic.[2] Whereas with human rights it is believed that we all have certain rights which we must honour for the benefit of others, Islam and Christianity believe that we all owe a duty to God to follow his rules as such the moral system is duty based and we do not owe anything to our neighbour, we refrain from infringing his moral rights as set out by God in the Bible or the Qu’ran as it is the duty we owe to God and no one else can challenge that right.

Islamic rulers are subject to duties to God about how they govern however those they rule have no rights over the ruler.[3] Hence these duty based rights are absolute as they are set out by God who is omniscient and omnipotent and there is no room for disagreement or change. Human rights however are man made. Whereas rights based in Christianity and Islam can only be claimed to be universal if one is following that faith or if everyone in the world was of that faith. With human rights this can not be said for sure as their source is man, they are the product of thought and reason.

Article 2 of the UDHR states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

Rawls says, human rights are “international and universal in the sense of applying to all people everywhere whether or not their governments recognise them”. However does this really stay true in the face of different cultural values, different religion’s and differences in the manner that women are treated. The UDHR is widely perceived as being a Western document embodying western values. First of all I would like to examine cultural differences, a good example is that of ‘Asian values’. These values are those espoused by leaders of East and Southeast Asian countries who reject the universality of human rights and claim that Asia has a unique set of values.

The first claim by the Asian states is that rights are culturally specific. The basis of human rights is peculiar to a certain set of social, economic, cultural and political conditions which do not exist in Asia. The 1991 Chinese White Paper stated that “[o]wing to tremendous differences in historical background, social system, cultural tradition and economic development, countries differ in their understanding and practice of human rights.”

The Bankgkok Governmental Declaration, endorsed at the 1993 Asian regional preparatory meeting for the Vienna World Conference on Human Rightsm asian governments agreed that human rights “must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm-setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional pecularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds.”[4]

Another of these purported values is that the community takes precedence over individuals. The community holds an important role in Asian values and is the exact opposite of the western hedonistic philosophy of the individual first which is the basis for the Western concept of human rights. The Asian view of human rights is that they are individualistic and hence not good for the social cohesion of Asian communities. It is their view that, the hedonistic outlook of the West is the cause for the rising violent crime, family breakdown, homelssness and drug abuse in the West and therefore is looked down upon.[5] The Singapore government stated in Shared Values (1991) (a government statement), that “[an] emphasis on the community has been a key survival value for Singapore”.

Asian states also claim that social and economic rights take precedence over civil and political rights. Asian societies prefer social and economic rights over an individual’s political and civil rights. A Chinese White Paper (1991) stated that “[t]o eat their fill and dress warmly were the fundamental demands of the Chinese people who had long suffered cold and hunger.” The Chinese government viewpoint is that as the majority of their populace is illiterate and living in rural conditions where subsistence is often the way of life. Political and civil rights matter little to these people who need to get out of poverty.

The best way towards that goal is for them not to have political or civil rights so that the government can obtain the maximum amount of production out of them to enable the government to establish the basics of what the people need such as adequate food, clothing and education as fast as possible. Once that objective is achieved civil and political rights would be given to them. It is clear that not all states would be able to provide socio-economic rights such as education and healthcare depending on their economic status.

Xiaorong Li defends human rights against the threat of Asian values and claims that “there are no grounds for believing that norms originating elsewhere should be inherently unsuitable for solving problems here. Such a belief commits the “genetic fallacy”, in that it assumes that a norm is suitable only to the culture of its origin. But the origin of an idea in one culture does not entail its unsuitability to another culture.”

Li’s argument here is weak. Although there is not a reason why rights which are normal in one culture can not also be used to the same effect in another, there is also no reason why such an occurrence should happen. Why should a norm in one culture work in another? If you do not derive the norms from God then the norms are a result of the historical, cultural, economic and social conditions in that area. If the other norm was good for that culture then surely it would already exist there if rights are universal.

Another area which is a source of opposition for human rights is the different ways that cultures treat women. Many practices around the world which violate human rights are against women. F. Raday in Culture Religion and Gender includes polygamy, female genital mutilation (FGM), female infanticide, patriarchal marriage arrangements, allowing the husband control over land, finances, freedom of movement husband’s right to obedience and power to discipline or commit acts of violence against his wife, including marital rape;

family honour killings by the shamed father or brothers of a girl who has been sexually violated, whether with consent or by rape; witch-hunting; compulsory restrictive dress codes; customary division of food, which produces female malnutrition; sale of daughters in marriage; paying to acquire husbands for daughters through the dowry system; and restriction of women to the roles of housewives or mothers, without a balanced view of women as autonomous and productive members of civil society.[6]

F. Raday claims that the most widespread of these is the treating of women as housewives or mothers and not being able to partake fully in society. However taking a look at the example of Africa we can see that there were legitimate reasons for these differences between the sexes. In Africa, women and men could not partake in similar roles in society except with regards to religious activities, because of the differences in their physical strengths. Marriage was a duty and people had no choice in the matter, motherhood and bringing up the children were the duties of every woman and because of this they had no room for partaking in other social or political activities.

However, despite this, women had a high status in African society due to their status as mothers or potential mothers. A high degree of importance was given to the role of motherhood in African society, with the mother-son relationship given high value. The honour given to the mother was remarkable and was greater than that accorded to the father. The bride was seen as precious as it was the gift through which the family perpetuated its existence and was also given a lot of honour.[7] A similar importance is given to women in Islam, where the mother is given three times the importance of the father. Some people see covered Muslim women as oppressed however this is not the case.

Muslim women cover up voluntarily, the purpose is that they are no longer valued for something material such as her looks. It forces people to treat the woman according to her intelligence, kindness, honesty and personality.[8] Professor Fadwa El Guindi claims “that for women, veiling in contemporary Arab culture fulfills many functions. It can signify privacy, kinship, status, power, autonomy, and political resistance.”[9] Polygamy is another source of contention with the West. In the case of Cleveland v. United States 329 US. 14 (1946) in the USA, Justice Murphy stated that, “It is not my purpose to defend the practice of polygamy or to claim that it is morally the equivalent of monogamy. But it is essential to understand what it is as well as what it is not….

Historically its use has far exceeded any other form. It was quite common among ancient civilisations and was referred to many times by the writers of the Old Testament; even today it is to be found frequently among certain pagan and non-Christian peoples of the world. We must recognize, then, that polygamy, like other forms of marriage, is basically a cultural institution rooted deeply in the religious beliefs and social mores of those societies in which it appears…. There is no basis in fact for including polygamy within the phrase “any other immoral purposes” [along with prostituion and debauchery].” Polygamy is permitted in Islam, the source of the Western opposition to polygamy seems to be Christianity, which only allows monogamy, upon which its morals are based or at least influenced by.

Religion is another issue which clashes with human rights although recently many Islamic countries and organisations have created declarations of human rights such as The Cairo Declaration which was founded on the 10th of December.

This involved the 45 countries who were part of the OIC, the declaration states that all rights are derived from God and that “no one as a matter of principle has the right to suspend them in whole or in part or violate or ignore them in as much as they are binding divine commandments”.[10] Islam does not have any separation of power between religion and state, they are seen as one and should act as one. In an Islamic state non-muslims are treated as second class citizens and have to pay a small tax for state protection as well has having less rights than Muslims.

Having said that, Christians and Jews have often lived together in an Islamic state in peace for example in Islamic Spain or Jerusalem. Muslims who change faith or renounce their faith can face the death penalty. The justification for this is the maintenance of the stability of the state whose entire foundation is Islam. Other aspects of Islam also clash with the human rights doctrine such as punishments for stealing can be the removal of a person’s hand and the death penalty for certain crimes. Although appearing particularly gruesome to Westerners it is an effective method of keeping crime down, as it serves as a general deterrent to others and prevents the offender from committing the crime again.[11]

These aspects clearly clash with the Western notion of human rights, seeing as they are based on divine commands as outlined in the Cairo declaration it definitely excludes the western version of human rights as all the rights are said to be derived from God. It leaves no room for negotiation except within the sphere of scholarly discussion within Islam, and I think is an insurmountable obstacle for the universality of human rights. Many critics of the west claim that the west seems to assume that people who take a viewpoint contrary to the doctrine of human rights is morally inferior and uneducated, which is nothing short of cultural imperialism and is what I wish to discuss next.

Human rights do not fit in with non-western culture or religion. The reasons behind this can be better explained by an examination of the origin of human rights. Human rights are thought to have originated in the French revolution. The Declaration des driots de l’homme et du citoyen of 1789 appears to be the first step from a natural law approach to rights to one more akin to the human rights were are used to today.

The first Article of the Declaration “refers to the condition of man in the state of nature, the second to the objectives of civil and political society, and the third to “the principle of legitimacy of power which resides in the nation”.”[12]These rights no longer represented rights which were valid from one culture to another as the doctrine of natural law espoused but rights which were only valid as part of a society which held the views of the masses to be important- a democracy or a republic.

The rights created by the French revolutionaries were in answer to the massive power held by the King. Jeremy Bentham at the time of the french revolution called the notion of human rights “nonsense on stilts”.[13] He said that “from real laws come real rights” but “from laws of nature, fancied and invented by poets, rhetoriticians and dealers in moral and intellectual poisons come imaginary rights, a bastard brood of monsters, ‘gorgons and chimeras dire’”. This viewpoint was discredited in the aftermath of World War 2 as the theory allowed other people not of the European nation states to be treated as backward people. The atrocities committed supposedly shattered any belief of such a theory and a new order in the form of the UDHR was created.

However one of the important factors in precipitating the UDHR was the realisation that the old empires were disintegrating. Perhaps it was this that led to the creation of the UDHR and the inclusion of other states in the drafting process. If the old empires still stood firm at the end of World War 2 it would have been highly unlikely that the UDHR would have been drafted. These rights which are supposed to be independent and universal do not show much evidence of having existed before the French revolution.

If these rights are universal then surely they must have existed throughout time and must be well evidenced in history. These rights should have been self evident in the medieval times and prior to then when the word of the monarch was law or in the time of the ancient Greeks or Romans. Clearly these rights were not in existence at these times.

Modern thought seems to be incredibly delusional in assuming that we have a greater understanding of philosophy and other matters than Plato and others who came before us. Though we have modern technology what does the average worker know about how most of it works? How much more does the average modern worker know than a farmer from several hundred years ago? The human being has not changed, it has remained the same and was the same in the time of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato as it is now. Jack Donnelly in An Analytic Critique of Non-Western Conceptions of Human Rights said that “Plato, Burke and Bentham all had theories of distributive justice, yet no one would ever think to suggest that they advocated humanrights.”

Also if human rights are not justified by God what exactly is the justification for them? As Nietzsche said “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. The morality is by no means self-evident. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole. It stands or falls with faith in God.” Human rights are constantly changing, if this is the case how can they be universal? Some human rights proponents claim that the number of human rights should not be increased for it would dilute their effect. If public perception affects the implementation of human rights then human rights is dependant on the support of the public to exist and is not universal.

The actions of western governments themselves help to prove the point against the universality of human rights. Though they claim to be for the protection of human rights their actions are inconsistent with that statement. The UK and American government partake in torture, an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation that has led to the deaths of at least a million Iraqis and the displacement of 4 million more according to the medical journal Lancet.

They seek to hold people without charge or fair trial. If the governments of the West do not follow the doctrine of human rights then human rights universality is implausible. Human rights appear to be the result of the masses gaining power in the French revolution. The fear of the masses keeps western governments touting the doctrine of human rights when their actions largely speak differently. Other countries such as Asian and African states tend to favour group rights over individual rights like the west. Human rights are like the original rights established in the French revolution. They are rights which are given by the state only and are dependant on the laws of that state to be enforced.

Rasch’s attack on Christianity is ill founded as religion’s are based on a duty to God not to each other. Human rights, however, are highly unlikely to overcome cultural, religious and gender differences. Human rights represent the ideology of those who created them, the west, who have an individual hedonistic outlook. The rest of the world has a largely duty based culture with a focus on groups not individuals.

Human rights also face an insurmountable challenge in the Cairo Declaration in that its duties which are based on God and are not going to be open to negotiation. The fact that rights are not in prevalence throughout other periods of time and that other notable philosophers have not come up with them show that this is a new phenomenon. An explanation for their existence can not be put forward. The fact that even western governments do not truly follow human rights proves that they are merely state rights and have no universal application.


Making Men Moral, Robert P. George, Clarendon Press, OxfordJustice, Tom CambellNatural Law and Natural Rights, John FinnisHuman Rights in Another Key, Johan GaltungMorality and the Law, Richard A. WasserstormJustice and the Human Good, William A. GalstonResponsibility in Law and Morality, Peter Cane

———————–[1][2] [3]Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, pp.50-55 [4][5][6]See Christina M. Cerna & Jennifer C. Wallace, Women and Culture, in 1 WOMEN AND INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS 623, 630-40 for a more thorough explanation [7]

[8][9] see for a western muslim women’s viewpoint on the clash between West and Islam