Are Human Rights Universal?
by Shashi Tharoor
New Internationalist magazine, March 2001
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is half a century
old, but critics are still asking whether anything in our multicultural,
diverse world can be truly universal.
Some ask, isn't human rights an essentially Western concept,
ignoring the very different cultural, economic and political realities
of the South? Can the values of the consumer society be applied
to societies that have nothing to consume? Isn't talking about
universal rights rather like saying that the rich and the poor
both have the same right to fly first-class and to sleep under
bridges? At the risk of sounding frivolous: when you stop a man
in traditional dress beating his wife, are you upholding her human
rights or violating his?
The fact is that there are serious objections to the concept
of universal human rights which its defenders need to acknowledge
honestly, the better to refute them.
The first is philosophical. All rights and values are defined
and limited by cultural perceptions. There is no universal culture,
therefore there are no universal human rights. Some philosophers
have objected that the concept is founded on an individualistic
view of people, whose greatest need is to be free from interference
by the state. Non-Western societies often have a communitarian
ethic which sees society as more than the sum of its individual
members and considers duties to be more important than rights.
In Africa it is usually the community that protects and nurtures
the individual: 'I am because we are, and because we are therefore
I am.' In most African societies, group rights had precedence
over individual rights and conflict resolution would not necessarily
be based on the assertion and defence of legal rights.
Then there is the usual North/South argument. The Universal
Declaration was adopted at a time when most Third World countries
were still under colonial rule. 'Human rights' are only a cover
for Western intervention in the affairs of the developing world.
Developing countries, some also argue, cannot afford human rights
since the tasks of nation-building and economic development are
still unfinished. Suspending or limiting human rights is thus
the sacrifice of the few for the benefit of the many. The human-rights
concept is understood and upheld only by a small Westernized minority
in developing countries; it does not extend to the lowest rungs
of the ladder. Universality in these circumstances would be a
universality of the privileged.
Many also object to specific rights which they say reflect
Western cultural bias: the right, for instance, to political pluralism,
the right to paid vacations (always good for a laugh in the sweatshops
of the developing world) and, most troublesome of all, the rights
of women. How can women's rights be universal in the face of widespread
divergences of cultural practice, when in some societies marriage
is seen not as a contract between two individuals but as an alliance
between lineages, and when the permissible behaviour of womenfolk
is central to the society's perception of its honour?
In addition, some religious leaders argue that human rights
can only be acceptable if they are founded on transcendent values
of their faith, sanctioned by God. The Universal Declaration claims
no such heritage - a draft reference to the Creator was consciously
left out of the final text. There is a built-in conflict between
the universality of human rights and the particularity of religious
How can one respond to these objections? Concepts of justice
and law, the legitimacy of government, the dignity of the individual,
protection from oppressive or arbitrary rule and participation
in the affairs of the community are found in every society on
the face of this earth. The challenge of human rights is to identify
the common denominators rather than to throw up one's hands at
the impossibility of universalism.
The objections also reflect a false opposition between the
primacy of the individual and society. Culture is too often cited
as a defence against human rights by authoritarians who crush
culture domestically when it suits them. In any case, which country
can truly claim to be following its 'traditional culture' in a
pure form? None have remained in a pristine state; all have been
subject to change and distortion by external influence, both as
a result of colonialism and through participation in modern inter-state
relations. You cannot follow the model of a 'modern' nation-state
cutting across tribal boundaries and conventions, and then argue
that tribal traditions should be applied to judge the human-rights
conduct of that modern state.
There is nothing sacrosanct about culture anyway. Culture
is constantly evolving in any living society, responding to both
internal and external stimuli, and there is much in every culture
that societies quite naturally outgrow and reject. Are we, as
Indians, obliged to defend, in the name of our culture, the practices
of sati or of untouchability? The fact that slavery was acceptable
across the world for at least two thousand years does not make
it acceptable to us now.
The basic problem with cultural relativism is that it subsumes
all members of a society under a framework they may prefer to
disavow. If dissenters within each culture are free to opt out
and to assert their individual rights - for example, Muslim women
in my country, India, have the right not to marry under Muslim
Personal Law - then it is a different story.
The case that women's rights emerge from a Western ethos is
often vociferously made by men. Let us concede that child marriage,
female circumcision and the like are not found reprehensible by
many societies; but let us also ask victims of these practices
how they feel about them. How many teenage girls who have had
their genitalia mutilated would have agreed if they had had the
human right to refuse? For me, the standard is simple: where coercion
exists, rights are violated and these violations must be condemned,
whatever the traditional justification. Coercion, not culture,
is the test.
On religion, it is my belief that people allow God to be blamed
for their own sins, and that human rights as we understand them
are fully compatible with the secular understanding of all faiths.
Every religion seeks to embody certain verities that are applicable
to all humanity-justice, truth, mercy, compassion - though the
details of their interpretation vary.
As for the suspension of human rights in the interests of
paternalistic development: authoritarianism promotes repression
not development. Amartya Sen has pointed out that it is the availability
of political and civil rights which give people the opportunity
to draw attention to their needs and to demand action from the
government. In fact, Sen's work has established that no substantial
famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country
with a relatively free press. Though there may be cases where
authoritarian societies have had success in achieving economic
growth, Botswana, an exemplar of democracy in Africa, has grown
faster than most authoritarian states.
A number of developing countries - notably India, China, Chile,
Cuba, Lebanon and Panama - played an active and highly influential
part in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The principles of human rights have been widely adopted, imitated
and ratified by developing countries, so it is hardly fair to
suggest they have been imposed on them.
When one hears of the unsuitability or ethnocentricism of
human rights, what are the unstated assumptions? What exactly
are these human rights that someone in a developing country can
easily do without? Not the right to life, I hope. Freedom from
torture? The right not to be enslaved, not to be physically assaulted,
not to be arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned or executed? No-one
actually advocates in so many words the abridgement of any of
these rights. Tolerance and mercy have always and in all cultures
been ideals of government rule and human behaviour. Objections
to the applicability of international human-rights standards have
all-too-frequently been voiced by authoritarian rulers and power
elites to rationalize their violations of human rights - violations
which serve primarily, if not solely, to sustain them in power.
Just as the Devil can quote scripture for his purpose, Third World
communitarianism can be the slogan of a deracinated tyrant trained,
as in the case of Pol Pot, at the Sorbonne. The authentic voices
of the Third World know how to cry out in pain. Let us heed them.
At the same time, the idea that human rights could be ensured
merely by the state not interfering with individual freedom cannot
survive confrontation with a billion hungry, deprived, illiterate
and jobless human beings around the globe. Human rights, in one
memorable phrase, start with breakfast.
For the sake of the deprived, the notion of human rights has
to embrace not just protection from the state but also protection
of the state, to permit human beings to fulfill the basic aspirations
which are frustrated by poverty and scarce resources. We have
to accept that social deprivation and economic exploitation are
just as evil as political oppression or racial persecution. This
calls for a more profound approach to both human rights and to
development. We cannot exclude the poorest of the poor from the
universality of the rich.
Of course universality does not presuppose uniformity. In
asserting the universality of human rights, I do not suggest that
our views of human rights transcend all possible philosophical,
cultural or religious differences or represent a magical aggregation
of the world's ethical and philosophical thought systems. Rather,
it is enough that they do not fundamentally contradict the ideals
and aspirations of any society, and that they reflect our common
humanity. Human rights, in other words, derive from the mere fact
of being human; they are not the gift of a particular government
or legal code.
For the standards being proclaimed internationally to become
reality we have to work towards their 'indigenization' - their
assertion within each country's traditions and history. If different
approaches are welcomed within the human-rights consensus, this
can guarantee universality, enrich the intellectual and philosophical
debate and so complement, rather than undermine, the concept of
worldwide human rights. Human rights can keep the world safe for