A general view of a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. (UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)

In his speech last month before the General Assembly at the opening of its 73rd session, French President Emmanuel Macron described many of the challenges before the United Nations and international community. Among them was the “cultural, historical, and religious relativism” that calls into question the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR proclaimed global recognition of fundamental human rights principles and standards seventy years ago—further strengthened by the Vienna World Conference almost fifty years later—and declared these rights to be universal, indivisible, interdependent, and inter-related. Despite this history, as President Macron highlighted, a worrying trend in which the universality of human rights is being increasingly challenged can be observed globally.

Core Challenges to the Universality of Human Rights

Critics of the notion that human rights are universal often assert that these rights are expressive of Western values, mores, and norms. The debate often hinges on the idea that though human rights are said to have universal validity, they originated in the West, reflect Western interests and are, therefore, a weapon of cultural hegemony or a new form of imperialism. Similarly, others argue that human rights emanate from a European, Judeo-Christian, and/or Enlightenment heritage (typically labeled Western) and cannot be enjoyed by other cultures that don’t emulate the conditions and values of “Western” societies. Read more