Are Human Rights Universal?
Author: Dipo Djungdjungan Summa
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/12/2011
What are human rights? By definition, they are entitlements
exercised against the state in order to protect the human dignity of a person,
precisely because of that person’s humanness. The entitlements are given not
because that person is a member of a particular social or political group; they
are not given because of the status of his/her birth; they are given simply
because of the fact that the person is a member of the human race, and as a
human being he/she deserves to live a life with dignity.
Throughout history and across different cultures, the
concept of human dignity has been espoused. Generally, all cultures agree that
human dignity should be preserved and protected. Thus, the Christians agree
that all human beings are created by the image of God, and are thus subject to
similar laws because they shared some common characteristic. This doctrine is
rooted in an ancient Jewish belief, which is also shared by Islam. Something
similar can be said for different cultural traditions; however, we need to be
careful of equating all these religious and traditional notions of human
dignity with the modern conception of human rights.
First, the full realization of human dignity in terms of
religious belief is always tied to the concept of discrimination, which means
that one will have more protection if one shares the same belief with the
rulers or authorities. Different beliefs mean different protection mechanism.
Although I cannot point to specific verses, whether in the Bible, Koran, or
Torah, history can speak for this. Whenever a population with a certain
religious belief finds itself under a ruler with another religion, the
population is likely to be subjected to many discriminatory treatments, or
treated as non-citizens. This is what happened to the Moslem people in the
Iberian Peninsula during the re-conquest of the peninsula by the Spanish, in
the 14th to 15th century – they were forced to change
their religion or face punishment and discrimination. This is also what
happened to Orthodox Christians population in Asia Minor and Constantinople
when that region fell to the hands of the Ottoman Turks in the 15th
century (although, most historians in general agree that the Moslems at that
time treated people from different religions better than their Christian
counterparts). Therefore, even though religions recognize some universal values
of human dignity that needs to be protected, history has shown that in terms of
practical implementation, religions (or religious rulers) treat people
differently on the basis of their religion, which stand in complete opposition
to the modern concept of human rights.
Second, the traditional, cultural concept of human dignity
is usually attached to a series of obligations that individuals need to fulfill
before their dignity is recognized. Human dignity is something that has to be
earned, rather than acquire automatically simply by becoming a member of the
human race. Mutua explains that this is how many traditional African
communities view dignity. Of course, this
attachment of rights to duties is not a specifically African idea. Confucianism
also maintains the primacy of obligations and duties over rights, maintaining
that one has certain duties toward society in accordance to one’s position. The
modern conception of human rights, on the other hand, recognizes only the duty
of the states in protecting the human dignity of individuals, and this
protection should be given without any condition attached to everyone.
Therefore, it is clear that traditional concepts of human
dignity cannot be equated with the modern conception of human dignity, which
are human rights. Human rights are given without having to acquire membership
in a particular economic, social or political group, and it is also given
without having to fulfill certain obligations and duties. It is given simply
because of the fact that the beneficiary is a human being. This conception of
automatic entitlement is what sets it apart.
Are Human Rights from the West?
Having recognized the difference between the traditional and
the modern conception of human dignity, let us turn our attention to the
question of origin. How did human rights come about?
It is not possible to answer the question on this short
article. Human rights have a very long history before it was finally
crystallized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent
treaties and covenants. One can point to many different ideas, such as the idea
of natural rights which is rooted in ancient Greek Philosophy, and further
propounded by Christianity. The American Declaration of Independence and the
Declaration on the Rights of Men and the Citizens from the French Revolution
also mentions about the “Rights of Man”, although in a relatively limited way
as compared to our modern understanding of human rights. There were also
various suffrage movements, such as the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th
century onwards, the fight against slavery, and also the Labor movements.
Before these suffrage movements, certain rights could only be enjoyed by the
elites, such as the rights to vote or to be elected to public offices. These
suffrage movements, however, expanded the subjects of the rights recipients or
the beneficiaries, giving, for example, women the right to vote, workers the
right to form unions, and everyone regardless of their skin colors to be free
from bondage and slavery.
All those developments contribute to the development of
human rights ideas as we understand it today. However, it is relevant to the
current topic being discussed to note that all these things happened in the
Western cultural context. In other words: the ideology of human rights as we
know it today began in the West.
Should Human Rights be Universal?
These things then beg the question: are human rights
universal? If they came from the West, should other cultures implement human
rights ideas in their respective societies?
The way I see it, rather than addressing the first question
directly, it is better to re-frame it into another question: should human
rights be universal? By re-framing the question, we shift the discussion from
the question of origin to a question of merits, and that for me is more useful
and practical rather than discussing about origins. After all, the question of
origin has pretty much been settled. Also, the question of merits will very
much relate to the next question on implementation.
When we talk about the merits of human rights, it should
involve at least two things. The first one is whether human rights are useful
in the protection of human dignity in a modern context. The second one is the
relationship between human rights and non-western cultural contexts.
First, about the usefulness of human rights in a modern
context, I would say that human rights are useful in the context of how modern
nation states are formed. This is especially true when we see that most modern
nation-states do not necessarily consist of just ‘one nation’, or ‘one
religion’, or even ‘one culture’. In reality, especially those states that have
emerged from centuries of colonialism, their borders were defined by colonial
powers and these borders do not conform to the older established borders of
ethnic groups and tribes. This has forced various people of different
ethnicity, cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs to live together next to
each other. In these countries, the principle of non-discrimination on the
protection of human dignity is supremely important to bring people together
into one state. This principle is what differentiates human rights from other
conceptions of human dignity. In this context, I would say that human rights
are very useful because they provide the principle of non-discrimination.
Human rights are also useful in the context of the relations
between individuals and modern nation states, especially because they center on
the well-being of the individual and limit the power of the state. This
limitation of state power is supremely important, especially in modern era when
the exercise of state power can be very abusive towards individuals. The older
and more traditional forms of political community, before the modern-nation
state, recognized older forms of protection of human dignity. However, due to
the modern form of the multicultural nation state, the older human dignity
concepts have became obsolete, thus making modern nation-state to be
potentially very abusive. Thus, the protection given by the recognition of
human rights becomes a very important limitation to the power of the state. It
recognizes only the obligation on the part of the state to provide for the
protection, while the individuals are not required to do anything to enjoy
their human rights.
Having established that, we should proceed to examine the
relations between human rights and non-western cultures. Some people say that
the relation is destructive. Human rights have the potential to threaten and
dismantle non-western culture, because of the incompatibility of values between
human rights norms and some of the traditional values of non-western societies.
This argument was particularly advanced by proponents of Asian values. This is
what Jack Donelly tries to explain in his article “Human Rights and Asian
Values: A Defense of ‘Western’ Universalism”:
Chinese society was dominated by the pursuit of harmony (he) at all
levels, from the cosmic to the personal. The path to harmony was li.
Although often translated as “propriety”, that term, in contemporary American
English at least, is far too weak to encompass li‘s force, range, or
depth. Li prescribes a complex set of interlocking, hierarchical social
roles and relations centered on filial piety (xiao) and loyalty (zhong).
Deference and mutual accommodation were the ideal. Personal ethic emphasizes
self-cultivation in the pursuit of ren (humanness), achieved by self
mastery under the guidance of li.
system of values and social relations is incompatible with the vision of equal
and autonomous individuals that underlies international human rights norms. In
fact, the “western” emphasis on individual rights is likely to seem little
short of moral inversion. Asian critics of demands for “western”
(internationally recognized) human rights argue that they have developed
alternative political ideals and practices that aim to preserve traditional
values of family, community, decorum and devotion to duty.
In the quoted paragraph above, critics from the Asian Values
perspective view human rights as a “little short of moral inversion”, this
means that human rights threaten the moral foundation of the Asian communities.
Implicit on that statement is the rejection of human rights as a value to be
implemented in Asian societies because of its incompatibility with the
traditional values of Asian people.
However, Amartya Sen writes that the “Asian values” that
some people are championing are very much contestable. Drawing from the
writings and practices of various Asian philosophers and kings from different
cultural and religious backgrounds, he finds that “many of these historical
leaders in Asia, not only emphasized the importance of freedom and tolerance;
they also had clear theories as to why this was the appropriate thing to do”.
He goes on to ask as to why the current leaders of Asia choose to represent
Asian values as emphasizing more on the need for harmony and order, rather than
describing Asian values as emphasizing on freedom and tolerance. Why choose
some values over the others, sidelining values which may have some parallels and
similarities with the modern conception of human rights? The answer is that
“Asian values” are used by some governments to justify their own
authoritarianism; that it is less a defense of traditionalism and culture than
a defense of a political system.
I think, rather than viewing the relations between human
rights and cultures as something that is destructive, we can actually view
human rights as protecting cultures. The implementation of human rights
protection empowers the people to define their own culture as they see fit,
rather than something that is defined from above, by the rulers. The
proposition of Asian values by some Asian governments, on the other hand, can
be seen as an attempt by regimes to set a standard of behavior that is in
accordance to their interest. These elites tried to freeze culture by defining
it according to their own liking. I think it is this freezing of culture that
threatens culture, rather than the implementation of human rights norms. By
saying that a certain culture has a certain characteristic which is fixed and
immutable, these rulers and elites are denying the rights of the people in that
culture to transform their culture into another form that they want. By giving
the people human rights, the right to transform the culture – or the right of
self-determination – is protected and cannot be intruded by the state, or by
the interest of the regime. Jack Donelly says, “Human rights also empower
people to modify or reject parts of their traditional culture”. This right to modify
and transform culture should be respected and not to be constrained by the
interest of the elites.
Therefore, I propose that human rights should be treated as
a universal value. First, because it has at least two merits that will be very
important in a modern society: the principle of non-discrimination and the
ability to limit the power of the state over individuals; and second, because
it does not contradict any culture. If anything, human rights actually protect
culture by giving the people the choice to transform and develop their own
Bio: Dipo Djungdjungan Summa is an Indonesian scholar currently based in the Philippines where he is working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).