In 1948, 50 member states of the UN came together to establish the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In its 30 articles, it lays out the rights all humans deserve, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, and more. For these rights to apply to you, all you had to be was human. It seems obvious to many of us that human rights should be universal, but there are critics of this idea. What are they saying and do they have a point? What’s the proper response?
Do “human rights” ignore cultural differences?
One of the main arguments against universal human rights appears to be that it ignores culture. How can rights apply to everyone, when there are so many differences between cultures? Critics question the UDHR document specifically, saying it’s biased towards Western ideals, and that it’s essentially a way for the West to force their views on the world. It’s not hard to see their point, considering countries like the United States use human rights as an excuse to invade areas, but then ignore human rights abuses elsewhere. This makes it seem like the concept of universal human rights is more political than anything else. Are universal human rights simply a way to justify Western expansion and the erasure of the traditions and culture of other countries?
Response to criticisms
The most clear response to this criticism is to point to how the UDHR was created. It wasn’t steered by Western countries. In fact, it was a delegate from Egypt who proposed that human rights should be considered universal. Many of the social and economic rights in the document were also spearheaded by Arab States and even the Soviet Union. When the document was finished, two-thirds of the endorsements came from non-Western countries.
It’s also important to note that many of the universal human rights are not specific prescriptions. Rather, they are the rights to be free “from” something. They are not exact blueprints on what a society that honors human rights needs to do, but rather, what that kind of society should not do, i.e. keep people in slavery, discriminate based on gender and race, and torture. According to human rights activists and researchers, it seems like the majority of criticisms against human rights come from leaders and states that want to infringe on rights. Using the concept of “tradition” as a mask, authoritarian structures seek to continue violating the rights of the most vulnerable people, like ethnic or religious minorities, women, and children.
Human Rights Watch researches these violations and their connection to old traditions and culture. Some examples include Kenya, where women wanting to own property or inherit are discriminated against, and Afghanistan, where forced marriages still occur. In Indonesia, there’s virgin testing; in Iraq, honor crimes are still legal; and for years in Ethiopia, female circumcision was reguarly practiced. Take note of who is being oppressed by these “traditions.” Actual citizens and people living in those countries do not see those violations as a positive part of their culture, and they want change. If something is harmful, why shouldn’t it end? Why shouldn’t human rights that challenge destructive actions apply to everyone?
What does change look like?
Overall, it’s globally-recognized that human rights can and should be universal, but how they actually become that in practice is a much more divisive question. Hypocrisy is rampant among states crowing the loudest about “human rights,” which weakens the universality and effectiveness of human rights. It’s all too-easy for critics to point to this failing and argue that it’s impossible for human rights to be universal. What’s the solution? It won’t be a quick fix.
First, countries boasting about human rights must actually do something about them, and not rest on their laurels and count how many treaties they’ve signed. These same countries must also take a hard look at their records at home and their consistency, so “human rights” doesn’t become a mask for consolidating power abroad. For human rights to be universally respected, countries should not be picking and choosing which abuses they care about.
Next, human rights must be seen as compatible with all cultures. Too many authoritarian leaders and states push back against human rights, using tradition as an excuse. In 2012, when the Botswana High Court ruled in favor of four sisters trying to keep their home, which went against traditional law, the judges wrote that “Culture changes with time.” By 2025, Ethiopia hopes to end FGM and early marriage. The human rights groups and leaders behind these changes focus on the transformation of culture and tradition. To embrace human rights, a country doesn’t need to throw out all of their culture. Culture progresses and evolves with time, thanks to the voices of those who’ve been historically silenced. Those voices should continue to be amplified for human rights to become universal.