Human Rights

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Following World War II and the Holocaust where millions of Jews, homosexuals, communists and Slavs were exterminated by Hitler’s Nazi regime, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and proclaimed on December 10th 1948 to prevent a another holocaust and to achieve a universal standard of human rights. Over the last sixty years various regional and international treaties and conventions have been adopted to protect and advance human rights towards universality. Furthermore, it equally important to mention that there has been a western dominated movement to universalise human rights. Nevertheless, Universal Human remains a contentious issue of debate among intellectual and policy circles. The purpose of this essay is to outline a few of the prominent issues and problems that are associated with the concept of Universal human rights.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (UDHR. 1948. P.2) Human rights in its contemporary perception is a fairly recent concept. In fact the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is often cited as the corner stone of human rights only came into force following World War II and the most “systematic and blatant” violation of human rights in record history that was the Holocaust (http://humanities.sas.upenn.edu/99-00/hn-hr/holocaust.htm). However, before we go any further, it is important that we establish a definition of human rights. Gibney (2008, p.3) provides a simple yet effective definition of the concept of human rights as “a core set of rights that human beings possess by simple virtue of their humanity”. We now return to the core issue at hand that is the Universality of human rights. Over the last 60 years human rights has taken a major step towards universality, aided by the numerous regional and international treaties and conventions such as The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and The Arab Charter on Human Rights. However, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, despite a very high ratification ratio, many of these treaties are not legally binding but rather voluntary. Nevertheless, there still remains much debate over the applicability of human rights on a truly universal level. Critics of universal human rights maintain that the concept of universal human rights ignores that fact that human beings are different. There are three arguments that stand between human rights as a universal concept and human rights as one that only apply some. The first argument against universal human rights comes from cultural relativists. Secondly, suspicions on the part of some due the dominance of the west on the human rights discourse in since the Second World War. The third argument is the hypocrisy of the west in the promotion and protection of human rights.

“Cultural relativity is an undeniable fact” (Donnelly, 1989, p.109). In fact as Donnelly (2007, p. 282) points out cultural relativism has been the most discussed of issues in the realms of human rights. Cultural relativists hold that “human values, far from being universal, vary a great deal according to different cultural perspectives” (http://www.un.org/rights/dpi1627e.htm). Furthermore, they view universal human rights as “insensitive to cultural differences and an instrument of oppression itself. Some Asian developing states call the human rights doctrine a new form of western imperialism” (Shanawez, p. 2) .In Fact what may seem immoral and wrong in one culture may be seen in a totally different light in another. As an example we can examine the “Asian Values” Debate advocated by such figures as former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The Asian values debate refers to values shared predominantly by people in the East Asian part of the continent rather than the entire continent (Sen, 1997, p.2)....
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