Can and Should Human Rights be Universal?

I had a lot of fun writing my human rights essay (geek much?!) and so I thought I would share it on here. The word count was a mere 2000 words and so not nearly long enough to include everything I wanted to but here it is. 🙂

Since the emergence of human rights language there has been great debate with regards to their universality, inalienability and their contention with cultural relativism, ethical relativism, utilitarianism, Marxism and feminism. In this essay I endeavour to tackle this question with particular reference to cultural relativism, ethical relativism and Islam as it is often these areas which are considered to offer the most criticism to the universality of human rights. I have chosen Islam as an area of study as it is currently the world’s fasting growing religion with 1.57 billion followers which is 23% of the world’s population (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2009, p. 1).

In order to offer a comprehensive analysis of human rights and their application in Islamic countries I will be discussing the theoretical basis of human rights, the three generations of rights and the criticisms of the universality of human rights with regards to the views of cultural and ethical relativism and also including religious challenges.

‘Human rights’ are rights that people have by the virtue of being human. ‘They attach to all persons equally, by virtue of their humanity, irrespective of race, nationality, or membership of any particular social group. They specify the minimum conditions for human dignity and a tolerable life’ (Oxford, 2009).

Rights language was conceptualised and developed through Western political history. Natural law which encompassed ‘social, moral, and political values’ provided a basis for objective moral order (Langlois, 2009, p. 12). Due to the rise of Christianity the natural law not only included duties to one another but also to God. The modern conception of rights has moved away from objective rights which are divinely sanctioned moral rights to rights which now include subjective freedoms and the liberty of individuals. The development of individual liberty culminated in the Enlightenment period. The conceptions of society, individuality, freedom, liberty, government and religion formed the basis of the rights of man which gained influence and stature through their inclusion in political documents.

Karel Vasak (1970) coined the notion of generation rights; specifically three generations of rights which consist of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ (Langlois, 2009, p. 16). Civil and political rights historically were the first to be recognized and thus liberty rights are the first generation of rights. Any establishment of true human rights have a basis of civil and political rights which protect the individual against the state’s power and infringement of rights such as those of ‘freedom of speech, religion, association, rights to a fair trial, and voting rights’ (Langlois, 2009, p. 16). These specific rights have been enshrined in 1976 (United Nations, 1948) in the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Politic Rights (ICCPR).

Equality is the second generation of rights which assert that all people should have the basic level of ‘economic subsistence, education, work, housing and health care’ (Langlois, 2009, p. 16). These particular rights are protected in the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which were established in 1976 (United Nations, 1948).

Finally, the third generation of rights referred to as fraternity rights are in relation to group rights which allow the ‘recognition and protection of minority groups, social identity and cultural issues’ (Langlois, 2009, p. 16). There is not a specific international covenant on these rights however; the UN has specific instruments which are dedicated to protecting these rights such as the Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace and the Right to Development. These third generation of rights are the least institutionalised as they are considered to be the most controversial; examples of such rights are sexual orientation and gender identity.

The generation of rights highlights the important nature of the morality of human rights. This sense of morality and protection of human rights are codified in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948.

Laws that have been made by predominately Western countries such as the Universal Declaration are being resisted to some degree by non-Western countries as these countries view organisations like the UN as imperialistic and seeking to impose incompatible values. Many non-Western states have a strong history of colonial exploitation and wish to seek their own independence free of imperialism.

Cultural relativism is the notion that rights are the product of a particular society and thus such rights cannot be universal. This assertion is based on the fact that there is cultural diversity which is not the same as cultural relativism. One of the major criticisms of the Universal Declaration and other international covenants is their failure to cater for non-Western cultures. Shestack (1998, p. 228) states that in their most aggressive stance cultural relativists ‘argue that no human rights are absolutes, that the principles that one may use for judging behaviour are relative to the society in which one is raised’ and that there is endless variability when dealing with cultural norms. He further argues that ‘all cultures are morally equal or valid.’ (Shestack, 1998, p. 201 – 234). With this in mind, there are criticisms of the various human rights declarations and international covenants as they are viewed as ‘not being respectful of different cultural, religious and philosophical traditions’ (Langlois, 2009, p. 19) and as a result not respecting people’s identity. Cultural relativism in politics only accounts that people have different values. It is not within the confines of cultural relativism to order the priority of any values whether they are liberal or cultural.

One of the main criticisms of cultural relativism lies in the ‘failure to differentiate between the theoretical claims of cultural relativism and the empirical fact of cultural relativity’ (Langlois, 2009, p. 19). The first criticism undermines any attempt to inaugurate a universal basis for human rights and the second criticism simply acknowledges human plurality. Whilst there are objections to the Universal Declaration on the grounds of cultural relativism and also Western imperialism these arguments is not plausible (Freeman, 2011, p. 120). The World Bank surveyed 60,000 poor people around the world and the results showed a substantial support for the principles of the UDHR (Darrow, 2003, p. 90).

Ethical relativism also known as ethical imperialism is the imposition of rights or values on others. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has used this theory to hinder the universality of human rights as they specifically highlighted their disdain of ‘the imposition of incompatible values’ (OIC, 1993). Ethical tolerance and ethical relativism are important aspects of this theory which require religious and cultural plurality. Arguably any behaviour could be morally acceptable somewhere in the world. However, cultural and ethical relativism allows for grave human rights abuses under the guise of culture and purporting a different way of living.

The most prominent challenge to the universality of human rights and directly to the Universal Declaration has come from Islamic countries through four pivotal documents. The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR), the Draft Charter on Human Rights and People’s Rights, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) and the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

The UIDHR was created in 1981 by Islamic Councils in Paris (Azzam, 1998, p. 102 – 112) and London (Halliday, 1995, p. 152 – 167) with affiliation from the Muslim World League (Mayer, 2007, p. 30). By using the language of Islamic jurisprudence this declaration restates the basic human rights. A later document in 1987 which was endorsed by the Arab Union of Lawyers (AUL) was the Draft Charter on Human Rights and People’s Rights in the Arab World. A later summation of these documents was the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. This declaration was ‘specifically written with more secular language than the Universal Islamic Declaration’ (Mohammadi, 2002, p. 114).

The UDHR was adopted in 1948 by the majority of the United Nations Member States. All of the Islamic States which were members of the UN also adopted the Universal Declaration with the exception of Saudi Arabia (International Humanist and Ethical Union, 2008). The ICCPR (1976) and the ICESCR (1976) has signatories from 46 of the 57 Member States of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The Cairo Declaration was adopted by the OIC in 1990. These states have gone back on their commitment on the universality and protection of human rights which they freely entered when they signed the UDHR, ICCPR and the ICESCR.

Islamic and Muslim majority countries have adopted the Cairo Declaration as they believe that ‘the promotion and protection of human rights should be encouraged by cooperation and consensus, and not through confrontation and the imposition of incompatible values’ (OIC, 1993). This is an indirect reference to Western imperialism and the OIC’s belief that the Universal Declaration is not universal as they do not take into account cultural and religious norms (Price, 1999, p.163).   The OIC Members States domestic governance and laws are based entirely or partly on the Islamic Shari’ah law.

The League of Arab States (LAS) in 1994 adopted the Arab Charter on Human Rights however; it only had one signatory, Iraq. An amended version was adopted in 2004. The Charter, enforced in 2008, seeks ‘the furtherance of the eternal principles of fraternity, equality and tolerance among human beings consecrated by the noble Islamic religion’ whilst also contributing to the ‘protection of universal and interrelated human rights’ (Smith, 2010, p. 81). The Arab Charter reaffirms ‘the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and having regards to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam’ (Smith, 2010, p. 81).  This proclamation of human rights unlike the previous Islamic human rights documents appears to be more liberal and supportive of the Universal Declaration and the international covenants. However, only 7 countries (Algeria, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Libya, Palestine and Syria) of the current 21 member states of the LAS have ratified the Arab Charter. Of these 7 countries Libya and Syria have been suspended due to their treatment of protesters in the Arab Spring of 2011 (Alkarama, 2008).

The former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto explains that ‘the colonial experience has obviously had a major impact on the Muslim psyche. Colonialism, resource exploitation, and political suppression have affected Muslims’ attitudes towards the West and towards themselves.’ However, she also believed that there is a ‘weighty unwillingness within the Muslim world to look inward and to identify where we may be going wrong ourselves’ (Bhutto, 2008, p. 4).

Democracy and human rights are compatible within Islam. The Islamic scriptures make direct reference to ‘violence, terrorism, intercultural relations, interreligious relations, the place of women in society, and science and technology’ (Bhutto 2008, p. 20) and ultimately puts forward a case for a pluralistic and modern Islamic society. Islam has codified democratic values. The Qur’an states that an Islamic society is dependent on ‘mutual advice through mutual discussions on an equal footing’ (Rahman, 1986, p. 90-91). During the time of the revelation of the Qur’an there was no such word as ‘democracy’ and yet the principles of consultation and equality in matters concerning the population are building blocks of any democratic institution thus, democracy and Islam are in fact mutually sustaining. Islam’s message of universal principles can be applied to contemporary issues through ijtihad and ijma. Islam’s concept of independent reasoning, logic and consensus is applied to ‘its constant principles to arrive at as consensus of interpretation for that age’ (Bhutto, 2001, p. 30).

The main criticisms of the universality of human rights are cultural relativism and ethical relativism however, both of these strands are ill-founded and not based on the history of humankind. Religious and secular human rights advocates have contributed greatly to the cause of human rights, particularly the universality of human rights. Human rights can be universal and has been proven as such through all of the major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam as they have had many principle messages including equality, free speech, religious freedom, the right to education, natural rights and freedom of conscience amongst others. These and other rights are also echoed by secular human rights advocates from Aristotle to Marx and Engels (Haas, 2008, p. 11 – 36). The secular advocates have had a strong influence in the formation of human rights language however, the basis of the UDHR, the ICCPR and the ICESCR has been religion. Whilst many critics of the Universal Declaration argue imperialism they are forgetting the messages of the major religions. The religious and secular advocates are united in their belief of the moral basis of human rights. It is for this reason that human rights can be and should be universal to give people basic freedoms as enshrined religion in many international human rights declarations and conventions including the UDHR and the Arab Charter on Human Rights.


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