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Human Rights By Ana Julia Ferreira

NCH London | July 10, 2018

Human Rights: Universal or a Western Construct?

By Ana Julia Ferreira

NCH Essay Competition 2018 Second Place


When a crucial document passes with 80% of votes in favor, one would expect debates about its validity to be nonexistent, or at least to abate soon after its approval. Yet, when it comes to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), debate still continues today, 70 years later, about whether it should be considered to be truly universal. The existing debate is based on a variety of factors, and arguments have been made saying that the concepts of the document are entirely westernized, as well as saying they are unequivocally universal. The nature of this debate brings about the question of whether anything in our multicultural world can be considered truly universal. To answer it, this essay will focus on the aspect of individualism versus collectivism, and will analyze the nature of the document in question through this filter.

Prior to focusing on the individualist versus collectivist aspects of the document, it is important to understand the arguments that have been made about its nature. It can be asserted with a certain degree of confidence that there is continuous indication of Western bias throughout the UDHR, namely a focus of rights that are divorced from one’s moral obligations, and a greater priority being placed on civil and political rights. Other conceptions of human rights, such as Asian and Islamic, put greater emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, illustrating why the UDHR can be said to focus mostly Western priorities and needs. Furthermore, various non-Western societies have shown a lack of the mere concept of human rights as stated in the declaration. An example of which is the practice of female circumcision in African countries. In spite of being considered to completely violate an abundance of human rights, this practice is seen a fundamental requirement for marriage as well as constituent of women’s roles in society in various African cultures. In fact, the consensus of the UDHR differs to such an extent from African societies that many of the continent’s leaders have adopted the African (Banjul) Charter on Human Rights, which they believe to be significantly more suitable for their society. A last argument that has been made towards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that it depicts ideas that are based on the historical experiences of Western countries, and therefore can only be seen to succeed in places with similar values and histories, as well as that possess a significant amount of money and resources that can be used to implement the mandated rights. Overall, it is therefore clear that the argument that the basis of the UDHR is fundamentally Western, and it therefore aggregates values in which Western society is significantly more comfortable.

Differently, to say that all rights present on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are purely western is to disregard a variety of values present around the world in non-Western societies.  A first example is the right to equality before the law without discrimination, which can be seen to be present in a variety of other sets of values. This was illustrated by Anwar Ibrahim, an advocate of Asian and Islamic values, when he said: “To say that freedom is western… is to offend our own traditions as well as our forefathers, who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustice.” One example of a right that corresponds to values present in other cultures is the right to life. This is present in the  Quran, which considers human life “a divine bestowal on humanity that should be secured by all means.” Similarly, the right to privacy is recognized in verse 24:27 of the muslim holy book. Furthermore, Jack Donnelly, author of “Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice,” suggested that simply because an idea emerged in one place, it does not mean that it cannot be applied in a second, which further debunks the idea that the UDHR can only be seen to work in the Western world.  In other respects, it is also known that the drafters of the declaration did not invent the ideas present in it, they simply put into words an idea that was shared prior to the end of the war between an abundance of envisioners of a new world order. Therefore, it can be said that many of the rights present in the universal declaration are found in a combination of Western and non-Western cultures. However, they do not seem to completely disprove the argument that a majority of the rights are made in a way that is mostly applicable to Western society.

In order to truly come a conclusion on the universality of UDHR, it is necessary to evaluate it from an individualist versus collectivist perspective. There is significant proof that a preponderance of the rights present in the declaration are given to individuals who have been extracted from the communities to which they belong. This is seen by the fact that a majority of the articles that state positive items begin with “everyone,” which fundamentally means “every individual,” and those that state negative ideas begin with “no one,” as in “no single individual.” This deliberate choice of words clearly shows that the nature of the UDHR is fundamentally individualistic. Furthermore, in the writing of Article 29 of the declaration, the inclusion of the phrase “in which alone the full and free development of his personality is possible” was suggested and passed with a vote of 23 for and 5 against. This shows that the majority of the delegates present in the drafting of the resolution believed that it was necessary to make clear that the rights in the declaration are given to human beings as individuals, illustrated by the use of the word “alone.” Critics who have spoken against the wording of this article have stated that it suggests all humans should be egocentric and not closely tied to their communities, an idea that completely goes against the beliefs of collectivist cultures. Overall, it is made clear by the diction of the document that the rights present in it are directed at individuals, an idea that completely goes against the beliefs of a plethora of cultures, such as those of a majority of Asian and South American countries.

An extensive amount of arguments that support this individualist approach in the declaration have also been made. A first was made by the lebanese delegate Charles Malik, who said that “the human person takes precedence over any group to which they belong and that an individual’s conscience took precedence over state or group interests.” This illustrates the belief present in many cultures that individuals should always be placed above communities. Furthermore, it is also believed that those who are not educated or live in precarious situations are not able to being social beings to their fullest capacity, which further supports the need for individualistic human rights. Therefore, it is clear that there is significant support for this approach. However, virtually all of it comes from members of individualist societies.

How, then, can it be argued that a declaration that so clearly shows a one-sided view is truly universal? It is unfair to say that some cultures’ beliefs are greater than and should be held above another’s. Greater care should have been taken to ensure that facts present in a document meant to represent the entire population of the earth did not completely focus on one way of thinking. This belief was also present amongst many delegates present in the drafting process, which was demonstrated by the extensive amount of support shown to the suggestion of placing the article on the individual’s duties to their community at the beginning of the declaration in order to clarify that the rights should be taken and experienced within the frames established by communities. However, with a vote of 8 to 7, the article was moved to the end of the document. So, to answer the question, this document should not in fact be considered universal. However, its individualistic nature makes it so that it should not be considered fully Western either. This is due to the fact that even within what is considered “the West,” there are cultures that are not individualistic, namely those of Portugal and Spain. The existence of such cultures in what is considered Western makes it incorrect to say that the presence of individualist rights in the UDHR makes the document Western, debunking all of the arguments made for the idea that human rights as currently stated in the declaration are simply Western. Overall, it is clear that the UDHR is not universal, but it is not Western either.

To conclude, the ongoing debate of whether the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be considered to be fundamentally Western is utterly pointless. This is illustrated by an analysis of the diction of the document, which allows us to conclude that it is individualistic in nature. However, even within Western countries not all cultures follow these ideals. Therefore the arguments for and against the universality of this declaration mentioned in this essay can be seen to be very vague and not account for all of the aspects that should be considered when making such general and important statements. Overall, the analysis of the document from a cultural point of view proves that it, along with virtually nothing in our polycultural world, cannot truly be considered universal.


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