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 Dec. 10, 1948, former
U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, chair 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 the Soviet Union -- abstained and expressed
The conflicting views on the declaration have become more pronounced
recently as human rights take a more central role in international and
domestic forums. The critics of the current international human rights
standards range from cultural relativists and 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 priority 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 some even place greater emphasis on economic, social and cultural
The philosophical and ideological underpinnings defining human
relationship with each other and society in many non-western societies are
at variance with our fixation with individualism or what some would call
The focus on individual rights -- in some cases to the detriment of the
family and community -- is not consistent with many non-western outlooks
on human rights.
Confucian scholar Tu Weiming writes: "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. The substructures of human rights in
some non-western conceptions attempt to establish equilibrium between
individualism and collectivism in ways that are different from ours. Far
from being a contradiction, as documented by collectivists theorists such
as Harry Triandis, individualism and collectivism can coexist and in fact
can thrive together.
From the Confucian perspective, for instance, 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
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
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 undoubtedly will 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 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 we can only claim to be
better than others because we use our own values and standards to measure
Dominance cannot be equated with the truth, though it is easy to get
caught up in the old confusion between might and right.
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, particularly given
that even proponents of the other views acknowledge that there are certain
universal values. For instance, the jailed former deputy prime minister of
Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, a proponent of both Asian values and Islam,
writes in his book, 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."
Claims of universality do not ensure universal acceptance. Accommodating
the various conceptions within the international framework may or may not
be plausible. The difficulty of the task should not prevent us from
grappling with this issue. At least from this exercise we may in fact
learn that there are indeed certain truly universal ideals and principles
shared by us all.
Indeed, 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. As suggested by a number of human rights
scholars, the United Nations must initiate a project to rethink and
reformulate the conception of human rights, 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 as we know it today is a
is a Toronto lawyer, writer and doctoral candidate at Osgoode Hall Law
School of York University. His articles are archived at
www.faisalkutty.com and he can be reached at
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