Is “Human Rights” a Western Concept?

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.

Related to this are the challenges rooted in cultural relativism, i.e., that what Western civilizations consider universal norms in human rights may not be applicable to other cultures. The premise of the “Asian values” debate, for example, argues that the civil, political, social, and cultural norms advanced by the international human rights legal framework are Western, rather than universal, and, therefore, no more legitimate than alternative norms or standards that could be considered “Asian” or other. By the same token, the increasing use of exceptionalism claims rooted in religious assertions, as in the case of “Islamic human rights” or “traditional values” debates, have become more commonplace.

What these narratives offered by critics deny is the pivotal struggle and experiences that gave rise to myriad international human rights instruments and mechanisms invoked across the globe today. All cultures—Western or otherwise—are acquainted with the experience of injustices, which beget demands for the recognition of human rights from oppressed populations that later give rise to human rights reforms. It is this “collective experience with injustice” which constitutes an authoritative foundation on which to build a theory of rights.

Moreover, debates focused on the origins of human rights or claims to historical or anthropological universality often obscure the fact that modern conceptualizations and articulations of human rights norms and standards were formed as political responses to the atrocities of the last World War. The international expressions of rights themselves claim no philosophical foundation, do not reflect any clear philosophical assumptions, and “articulate no particular moral principles or any single, comprehensive theory of the relation of the individual to society.” They are the outcome of diplomatic initiatives, involving political strategy and negotiated agreements.

The claims of non-universality also fall flat when looking back at historical support for human rights. Fifty-eight countries assembled in 1948 to affirm their “faith in the dignity and worth of all persons” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wherein a framework for preserving that dignity and fostering respect for its worth was offered. Among these states were, African, Asian, and Latin American countries. Thirty-seven states were associated with Judeo-Christian traditions; 11 Islamic; 6 Marxist; and 4 identified as being associated with Buddhist-Confucian traditions.

It was Egyptian delegate, Omar Lutfi, who proposed that the UDHR reference the “universality” of human rights, noting that such rights should be applicable to “nations and people that were not autonomous,” meaning those persons still subject to colonial rule at the time. While social and economic rights were placed on the agenda as a result of pushes from the Arab States and the Soviet bloc, respectively. Forty-eight countries voted in favor (with eight abstentions and the other two countries not voting). Among the abstainers were Saudi Arabia, the Soviet bloc, which demanded more emphasis on socio‐economic rights than referenced in the document, and South Africa, whose government was openly hostile to the Declaration. As such, the UDHR was formed with major influence from non-Western states, thereby giving it legitimacy as a truly universally-applicable charter to guide humanity’s pursuit of peace and security.

In proceeding years, Latin American and African countries, in addition to several European states, championed these rights through the establishment of initiatives and procedures for scrutinizing and reporting on human rights conditions and for advancing wide acceptance of human rights among diverse cultures (all of which ultimately led to the present-day UN Human Rights Council and its special procedures). By the mid-1960s, the number of countries participating in the process of constructing these standards had more than doubled. The presence of newly decolonized countries within the UN put self‐determination, anti‐discrimination rights, and, later, the right to development on the agenda. When the two Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were forwarded to the UN General Assembly for final approval in 1966, there was no opposition of any kind. Both covenants were approved by unanimous votes of the General Assembly, which consisted of 100 members at that time.

Furthermore, states like Chile, Jamaica, Argentina, Ghana, the Philippines and others were vanguards for the advancement of concepts such as “protecting,” in addition to “promoting” human rights. In 1963, for example, fourteen non-Western UN member states requested that the General Assembly include a discussion on the Violation of Human Rights in South Viet-Nam on its agenda, alleging that the Diem regime had been perpetuating violations of rights of Vietnamese Buddhists in the country. The appeal resulted in the first iteration of a special procedure, led by the Chair of the Commission on Human Rights. Similarly, in 1967, a cross-regional group of states from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean secured the adoption of two commission resolutions, establishing the first two Special Procedure mandates: the Ad-Hoc Working Group of Experts on southern Africa and the Special Rapporteur on Apartheid. The special procedures mechanism was thus established. Both resolutions were adopted by a vote, with most Western countries abstaining.

The Need for Universality and Understanding

As noted by some experts, there is actual wide acceptance that global standards are necessary for domestic political institutions, and that actual or threatened violations of these standards are reasonable grounds for action from the outside. This is a point in history without precedent and one which needs to be safeguarded. Civil society actors operating across the world depend on such international standards to anchor their claims for justice, but they often appear unaware of the degree to which their states were invested in the negotiations that created those standards. There is a richer, more complex story in need of recognition.

This story must make clear the participation of “Global South” states in advancing recognition of human rights norms, and their leadership in establishing the accompanying international bodies and procedures for better realizing them.  We also cannot ignore the contribution of human rights groups across the globe today that continue to fill the gaps in the international human rights framework. This story is deserving of recognition in the halls of the UN and in parliaments around the world, for the human dignity of all persons.

Dr. Ahmed Shaheed is the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief as well as the Deputy Director of the Essex Human Rights Centre. He previously served as the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, and twice as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives, leading its efforts to embrace international human rights standards.

Rose Parris Richter has served as a senior advisor to Ahmed Shaheed since 2011 and has been Executive Director of the Human Rights in Iran Unit and the Project for Freedom of Religion or Belief at the City University of New York. She was previously a senior advisor to the UN Mission of the Maldives and an advisor to the UN Mission of Timor-Leste.