Human rights: an inescapably western product?

In today’s so-called “human rights culture” it does not take long for the violation of a human right to gain massive media coverage. The inherent link between human rights and western preoccupations is all the more preponderant in England and France respectively. Furthermore, it has been argued that in an attempt to strictly abide by these rules known as “human rights,” certain values are hidden and oppressed.  The debate whether human rights are to be universal remains a polarised matter attracting much academic debate.

Human Rights: “A new ideal that has triumphed on the world stage”[1]?


Undeniably, the historic evolution of rights has become synonymous with the development of Western philosophical and political values. The English Petition of Rights (1627), the United States Constitution (1787) and the French Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen de 1789 all spring to mind when one refers to human rights but, most importantly, the rights encompassed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2] (UDHR) are a milestone regarding the development of human rights. Inevitably, following the aftermath of the two World Wars and Nazism, the development of human rights gained a remarkable momentum. Friedman notes that particularly after the Second World War, “…declarations, treaties, manifestoes, and covenants…sprouted like weeds…”[3] The UDHR has become the symbol of international concern regarding the protection of human rights. It is important to note that in its preamble the UDHR claims to be “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Evidently, the events preceding the Declaration and the context in which it was drafted are of pivotal importance.  Ethnocentrism within the Declaration is nonetheless inevitable and axiomatic.


A concoction of the West imposed upon the rest?

Clearly, the West focuses on the implementation and respect of certain values; ideological differences whereby economic rights are given priority over individual, civil or political rights and cultural differences. In the meantime, by imposing these values as the norm it consciously or subconsciously underlines its dominance on the world stage. Consequently, the West is seen as an oppressor by non-Westerners.  Saïd in Orientalism portrays the West as a culturally and politically imperialist force trying to impose their beliefs on the non-western states.[4]

The pressing question that we must ask is:  how can universal human rights exist in our culturally diverse world? To deny one’s culture for the implementation of a “universal” set of rights would be callous. The creation and implementation of a global culture would annihilate the unique history of each culture, which in turn, forms part of humanity as a whole.

There are fundamental differences between Western, Asian, Islamic and African civilizations.  The mere fact that certain countries did not wish to sign the Declaration is indicative that the rights were not considered to be universal. Whilst many of us value autonomy, democracy and liberty this is not entirely true of all cultures; cultural diversity is what makes it impossible accept the Declaration. Whether we intend for these rights, in theory, to be applied universally is a very different story to whether they can, in reality be applied universally. Namely, the first sentence of Article 18 of the UDHR which states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” posed a problem for the Saudi Arabians. In fact, the Universal Declaration is said to violate Islamic Sharia law. Shivji[5] admits, just like Al-Na’im that, “there are aspects of Islam and the Sharia law which cannot be accepted in the modern world.” The establishment of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam[6] provided an Islamic perspective on human rights and can thus be viewed “through Islamic lenses.”[7]

It is therefore accurate to conclude that human rights are inescapably a western product. It is true to a great extent that human rights have become a feature of global western imperialism. Nonetheless, it is imperative to accentuate that whilst these rights may be stigmatized as an inescapably western product, this does not mean that they are entirely worthless in other parts of the world. If human rights are to be a viable universal concept it will thus be necessary to consider and analyse the differing cultural and ideological conceptions of human rights. The protection of human rights is imperative, however, we must do this without marginalising the way culture affects our life. Many argue that the concept of human rights as it exists today in the West is far too idealist and dogmatic.  Therefore, one is led to ask the following question: would it not be more appropriate for human rights to allow states to offer their people with an ideal human order based on their own value system and not that imposed by the West?

Christina AVGOUSTI

Pour en savoir plus: 

-Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights In Theory and Practice (2nd edn. Cornell University Press, 2003)

-Douzinas, Costas, The End of Human Rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century (Hart Publishing, 2000)

-Friedman Lawrence M, The Human Rights Culture (Quid Pro Books, 2011)

-Saïd, Edward, Orientalism (London: Penguin 1977)

Shivji, Issa G, The Concept of Human Rights in Africa (Codesria Book Series, 1989)

[1] Costas Douzinas, ‘The End of Human Rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century’ (Hart Publishing, 2000) p1

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights(adopted 10 December 1948, UNGA Res 217 A (III) (UDHR)

[3] Lawrence M. Friedman, The Human Rights Culture (Quid Pro Books, 2011) p1

[4] Edward Saïd, Orientalism, (London: Penguin, 1977)

[5] Issa G Shivji, The Concept of Human Rights in Africa (Codesria Book Series, 1989) p14

[6] Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, Aug. 5 1990

[7] Ibid note 5

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