Are human rights "universal"? (2023)

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word count:1730 wordsPublished:9 January 2018

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Human rights used to be a national issue, championed by their advocates in each separate state, but this has morphed dramatically and relatively quickly into a movement claiming that these human rights are universal and that all people are born with them. However, this paper will argue that human rights are not universal, as they are inherently subject to statutes that are not considered universalist, but are in many cases considered to be beliefs espoused by the West. However, the universality of human rights lies in the strength of popular support for universal human rights. So if the ideas on which universal human rights are based thrive, they can overcome all their shortcomings. The first paragraph of this essay focuses on the extent to which the idea and norms of universal human rights have flourished. This essay will then critique human rights from a cultural perspective, arguing that human rights are not universal as they represent conflicts between the rights of individuals and the rights of groups. In conclusion, this paper argues that the lack of respect for these so-called universal human rights (particularly by Western states) has dealt a heavy blow to the notion that they are universal human rights.

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To address the question of whether human rights are universal, we must analyze to what extent the norms and ideas of human rights are universal. Today, these rights exist within the legal system of international charters and national constitutions, but historically human rights were seen as "laws of nature" that were not subject to any legal system, state, or civilization, as these they were our God-given rights. . However, since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), notions of human rights have evolved towards the acceptance by most nations that there are inherent human rights with which people are born, such as: B . The right to life. Today it is argued that international human rights “have become constitutive elements of the modern and “civilized” State (Risse-Kappen, 2002: 234). States did not sign the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights because of their equivalent beliefs, but agreed instead because they believed that the material benefits would outweigh the disadvantages and that they could withdraw whenever they wanted. However, the international norms surrounding the human rights regime grew as these nations became entrenched in the regime due to the growth of norms and conceptions of human rights in international society. As much as the human rights regime has grown today and become the popular belief in Western societies, it is not universal, having failed to gain a foothold in non-Western areas and cultures.

Critics of human rights universalism argue that human rights are deeply embedded in the Western liberal tradition, both historically and culturally. For human rights to be universal, human rights must transcend all cultural and religious boundaries, but human rights today is very Eurocentric. cultural theorist

"They criticize the existing human rights corpus as culturally exclusive in some respects and therefore consider parts of it illegitimate or at least irrelevant in non-Western societies...they do not believe that a genuine universal truth can be constructed from human rights from any culture.” (Mutual, 2002: 43)

This cultural theoretical argument is very persuasive, since human rights today need to be reformed with a multicultural approach to make them more universal.

The universalist theory of human rights is based on a Western philosophy and focuses on the individual. These theorists advocate for a set of rights that they are born with and that predate society. "Since the late eighteenth century it has become commonplace in liberal societies to assert that individuals have rights...that they are inalienable and unconditional" (Brown 1999: 104). Because the foundations of the human rights regime are individualistic, it has alienated large groups that do not defend some of these rights. These contradictions are found in religious groups. Saudi Arabia abstained from voting on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 because Article 18 violated both Saudi law (which is practiced by other religions in Saudi Arabia) and followers of Islam, which prohibits the right to apostasy. not recognized by faith. This shows that certain human rights may be seen as rights by the West, but other nations or groups of people may not see these rights as rights at all. Huntington emphasizes the contradiction between the word and the action of Westerners when he says

“Non-Westerners…feel free to point out the gaps between Western principle and Western action. Hypocrisy, double standards and "but no" are the price of universalist claims. ... Human rights are a problem for China, but not for Saudi Arabia; … Double standards in practice are the inevitable price of universal standards of principle.” (1996:184)

Currently, Islam is incompatible with the international human rights regime, since there are many contradictions between the two. As Huntington says, there are many double standards in the international community that give special provisions to certain countries that consider themselves friendly to the West, such as Saudi Arabia. This shows that human rights are not universal but primarily Western and that the gaps between human rights and Islam will remain unless the regime is fundamentally reformed and human rights are established with a better understanding of different cultures, religions and values. ideological.

One of the main criticisms of the universalism of human rights is the current issue of compliance. As mentioned above, there are many double standards when it comes to human rights, as certain countries can violate them. However, when Western nations do not either, the consensus on the universality of human rights will be questioned and profoundly violated. Take today's war on terror, for example. There are some basic questions to ask. When does a government go too far and circumvent the rights of the people? What rights can be circumvented for the public good? Can governments find a way to respect human rights while waging the so-called war on terror? If there were a fixed answer to these questions, it could be argued about.

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When it comes to the war on terror, human rights rules and beliefs are effectively overturned. Civilians have been targeted for practices such as rendition and torture in places like Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib without access to lawyers or courts. When many people talk about the United States today, it's hard not to have images of Jack Bauer, the 24-year-old anti-terrorist agent who constantly tortures people and breaks the law. This lack of compliance by the United States, which is today the only hegemonic power and leader of the free world, was one of the main reasons why human rights are not 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 US detentions and interrogations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are a sign dangerous. for other countries that could easily follow his example. (Reuters, accessed March 22)

This is now the case for many countries that use the cover of the war on terror to hide their own domestic human rights abuses, as the United States and its Western allies have befriended in exchange for their support in the United States to human rights violations in their own countries. The countries of the country seal campaign against terror.” (BBC News, accessed March 22)

Today, extreme violations of human rights by institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) are seen as a matter for the international community. The ICC indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir is a fundamental step towards the eventual universality of human rights (International Crises Group, called 22 March). However, it is still important to note that while this was a big step, the ICC and this path to universal human rights is still a long way off, as it can be argued that with three of the VETO powers at the UN ( China, the US and Russia) and no major Asian power joins the International Criminal Court, there is still a long way to go to ensure that the human rights regime is seen as legitimate, universal and representative outside the West.

Throughout this essay it has been argued that human rights are not universal. The first paragraph of this essay focused on the extent to which the idea and norms of universal human rights have flourished. He then went on to criticize human rights from a cultural perspective, arguing that human rights are not universal as they represent a conflict between the rights of individuals and the rights of groups. Finally, this essay argued that the failure to uphold these so-called universal human rights has dealt a heavy blow to the notion that they are universal human rights.


  • BBC News, War on terror „curbing human rights“, 22 de marzo de 2010,
  • Brown, Chris, (1999), „Universal Human Rights: A Critique“, en Dunne, Tim y J. Wheeler, Nicholas, Human Rights in Global Politics, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Huntington, Samuel P. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Reshaping of the World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster International Crises Group, The ICC indictment against Bashir: A turning point for Sudan?, 22 March 2010, =5959&l=1
  • Mutua, Makau (2002), Human Rights, A Political & Cultural Critique, Filadelfia: University of Pennsylvania Press Reuters, U.S. „war on terror“ erosioned rights worldwide: Experts, 22 de marzo de 2010, / Artículo/IDUSTRE51F36120090216
  • Risse-Kappen, Thomas, (2002), The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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