Human Rights Are Not a Western Construct

Category: World Affairs Topics: Human Rights, United Nations Views: 3406

Fifty-two years after the universal declaration of human rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, the debate continues as to whether the document is truly universal.

Upon its adoption on December 10, 1948, former American first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, chairperson of the commission on human rights, expressed her hope it would become "the Magna Carta of all mankind." Ironically, as was the fate with the "great charter" of 1215, the declaration has not fully lived up to its name.

The declaration was challenged from its very inception. The commission's first draft attracted 168 amendments from various countries. However, the final document was almost unchanged from the initial draft tabled by the commission. Forty-eight countries voted in favor, while eight countries -- Poland, Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Soviet Union -- abstained and expressed reservations.

The conflicting views on the declaration have become more pronounced recently as human right takes a more central role in international and domestic forums. The critics of the current international human rights standards range from cultural relativists to Islamists to proponents of Asian values. They contend the existing international human rights regime is deeply influenced by the western experience. The spotlight on the individual, the focus on rights divorced from duties, the emphasis on legalism to secure these rights and the greater priorities given to civil and political rights are all hallmarks of the western bias. In contrast, the Asian (including Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Hindu, etc.) and Islamic conceptions would emphasize community, duties to one another and society and place greater emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights.

The philosophical and ideological underpinnings defining human relationships in many non-western societies are at variance with the West's fixation with individualism or perhaps more accurately radical individualism. The focus on individual rights to the total detriment of the family and community is not consistent with this outlook on human rights.

Confucian scholar Tu Weiming writes, for instance, "Confucian humanism offers an account of the reasons for supporting basic human rights that does not depend on a liberal conception of persons." However, this in no way implies that such views are totally devoid of consideration for the individual.

On the contrary, according to Islamic legal scholar Mohamed Hashim Kamali, the Islamic conception "is inherently individualistic, it is designed first to defend and protect the basic dignity of the human person against imposition by the society and the state." Far from being a contradiction, as documented by collectivists theorists, such as Harry Triandis, individualism and collectivism can coexist and in fact thrive together.

The substructure of human rights in Islam provides for parameters directed at the attainment of equilibrium between individualism and collectivism. Islam offers a moderate approach by not stressing extremes, rights of the individual over community or rights of society to the detriment of individual dignity. The aim is to reconcile the communitarian and individualistic conceptions of society. Indeed, the Qur'an proclaims: "Thus have we made of you a nation (or community) justly balanced so that you may bear witness over the nations." (Al-Baqr, 2:143)

From the Confucian perspective, Weiming notes: "Human rights are inseparable from human responsibilities. Although in the Confucian tradition, duty-consciousness is more pronounced than rights- consciousness - to the extent that the Confucian tradition underscores self-cultivation, family cohesiveness, economic well- being, social order, political justice and cultural flourishing - it is a valuable spring of wisdom for an understanding of human rights broadly conceived."

The natural law origin of the declaration also conflicts with the religious view that rights are derived from divine authority. Brazil's suggestion the declaration ought to have referred to a transcendent entity was rejected outright during the debate leading to the declaration's adoption. One argument says the denial of divine authority is essential to make the philosophy underlying rights protection universal. How can something be universal when it rejects the view of a significant component of the world's population - not only eastern religions but also adherents of Christianity and Judaism -- who believe in some form of divine, authority? Why should the assumption of secular elite be imposed on everyone?

The extensive list of fundamental human rights is subject to certain general limitations, set out in articles 29 and 30 of the declaration. Article 29 (2), for instance, provides for "limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society." The different philosophies and views will undoubtedly produce equally valid interpretations of such restrictive articles and human rights standards in general.

A strong argument can be made that the current formulation of international human rights constitutes a cultural structure in which western society finds itself easily at home. This has led some Western human rights scholars such as Jack Donnelly to arrogantly conclude that most non-western societies lack not only the practice of human rights but also the very concept. This clearly overlooks the fact that the West can only claim to be better than others because it uses its own values and standards to measure them. Dominance cannot be equated with the truth, though it is easy to get caught up in the old confusion between might and right. By what right does the West impose its views on others?

It is important to acknowledge and appreciate that other societies may have equally valid alternative conceptions of human rights. Exiled Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi once told a reporter, "I think a universal concept of human rights must come from the philosophical vision of all peoples." The call for a more inclusive conception is laudable. Even proponents of the other views acknowledge that there are certain universal values. For instance, Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister, a proponent of Asian values and Islam, writes in The Asian Renaissance: "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."

Accommodating the various conceptions within the international framework may or may not be plausible. However, the complexity of the task should not prevent the international community from addressing the issue. At the very least, the international community must acknowledge that human rights formulations of other societies must be given equal standing and refrain from imposing western standards. Claims of universality do not ensure universal acceptance and compliance.

The belief that the current international human rights regime is derived exclusively from the ideological framework of the West is a major obstacle in its acceptance as a truly universal vision. The United Nations must initiate a project to rethink and reformulate international human rights laws, taking into account the different philosophies that share this planet.

The only way to ensure universal acceptance of and compliance with international human rights law is by removing the crutch used for so long by human rights violators -- that human rights is a western construct.


Faisal Kutty is a Toronto based attorney and regular contributor to ,

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Human Rights, United Nations
Views: 3406

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