The growing consensus in the West that human rights are universal has been fiercely opposed by critics in other parts of the world. At the very least, the idea may well pose as many questions as it answers. Beyond the more general, philosophical question of whether anything in our pluri-cultural, multipolar world is truly universal, the issue of whether human rights is an essentially Western concept—ignoring the very different cultural, economic, and political realities of the other parts of the world—cannot simply be dismissed. Can the values of the consumer society be applied to societies that have nothing to consume? Isn't talking about universal rights rather like saying that the rich and the poor both have the same right to fly first class and to sleep under bridges? Don't human rights as laid out in the international covenants ignore the traditions, the religions, and the socio-cultural patterns of what used to be called the Third World? And at the risk of sounding frivolous, when you stop a man in traditional dress from beating his wife, are you upholding her human rights or violating his?
This is anything but an abstract debate. To the contrary, ours is an era in which wars have been waged in the name of human rights, and in which many of the major developments in international law have presupposed the universality of the concept. By the same token, the perception that human rights as a universal discourse is increasingly serving as a flag of convenience for other, far more questionable political agendas, accounts for the degree to which the very idea of human rights is being questioned and resisted by both intellectuals and states. These objections need to be taken very seriously.
The philosophical objection asserts essentially that nothing can be universal; that all rights and values are defined and limited by cultural perceptions. If there is no universal culture, there can be no universal human rights. In fact, some philosophers have objected that the concept of human rights is founded on an anthropocentric, that is, a human-centered, view of the world, predicated upon an individualistic view of man as an autonomous being whose greatest need is to be free from interference by the state—free to enjoy what one Western writer summed up as the “right to private property, the right to freedom of contract, and the right to be left alone.” But this view would seem to clash with the communitarian one propounded by other ideologies and cultures where society is conceived of as far more than the sum of its individual members.
Who Defines Human Rights?
Implicit in this is a series of broad, culturally grounded objections. Historically, in a number of non-Western cultures, individuals are not accorded rights in the same way as they are in the West. Critics of the universal idea of human rights contend that in the Confucian or Vedic traditions, duties are considered more important than rights, while in Africa it is the community that protects and nurtures the individual. One African writer summed up the African philosophy of existence as: “I am because we are, and because we are therefore I am.” Some Africans have argued that they have a complex structure of communal entitlements and obligations grouped around what one might call four “r's”: not “rights,” but respect, restraint, responsibility, and reciprocity. They argue that in most African societies group rights have always taken precedence over individual rights, and political decisions have been made through group consensus, not through individual assertions of rights.
These cultural differences, to the extent that they are real, have practical implications. Many in developing countries argue that some human rights are simply not relevant to their societies—the right, for instance, to political pluralism, the right to paid vacations (always good for a...