Are Human Rights Universal?
The doctrine of human rights is one of the main topics that were created to protect every single human regardless of race, gender, sex, nationality, sexual orientation and other differences. It based on human dignity and that no one can take this away from another human being. It is that every ‘man’ has the inalienable rights for equality, but is this true? Are human right universal? Whether human rights are universal has been greatly debated for decades. There have been individuals and even countries that oppose the idea that human rights are for everybody. This argument shall be investigated in this essay, by: exploring definitions and history on human rights, debating on whether it is universal while providing examples and background information while supporting my hypothesis that human rights should be based on particular cultural values and finally drawing a conclusion.. A general definition of human rights are that they are rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled to, simply because there human. It is the idea that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ The thought that human rights are universal emerges from the philosophical view that human rights are linked to the conservation of human dignity- that respect for individual dignity is needed regardless of the circumstance, leading to the notion that human rights are universal. The earliest form of human rights can be traced back to European history- the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and of Citizen which says that men are born free and equal in rights. The Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in 1948 to recognise the rights of humans. The document was created to serve as a base of freedom, justice and peace in the world. However, this is debated which I will go into more detail later on. It had the inspiration to promote friendly relations between nations and it is emphasised that all nations should cooperate. Though, this can be said to be naive as to go as far to declare that all countries abide by the Declaration and that it is universal is mistaken. What does it mean to be universal? The concept believes that human rights belong to all human being and that it is fundamental and essential to every type of society. Those who disagree that human rights are universal believe that human rights are based on your culture, it has to be understood that a right for one group maybe outright intolerable to members of another group. Human rights are being viewed as being too ‘Western’ and representing specific cultural norms and belief system of some cultures and societies rather than all. This is the cultural relativist argument, the belief that human rights cannot be applied to non-Western nations. The belief has been endorsed by many political leaders, Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew suggested that the ‘Western concepts of democracy and human rights will not work in Asia, by explaining that the West is too individualistic compared to family-orientated Asia. ‘What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value? Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient.’ Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia said that ‘others argue that freedom and democracy, while suitable in some parts of the world are by no means universal goods. They say that other nations ought not to adopt the ways of freedom and democracy without due regard to their own political, cultural, and social traditions.’ Highlighting the debate that human rights are too individualistic and can only be applied in the West. This view of Cultural Relativism have been gaining alot momentum, most nations are firmly opposed to Western human rights....
Cited: Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
Lee Kuan Yes in a speech entitled ‘Democracy, Human Rights and Realities’ Tokyo, Nov 10, 1992.
Ibrahim, A., (2006). Universal Values and Muslim Democracy Journal of Democracy, 17 (3). 6. [online] Available from: < http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/gratis/Ibrahim-17-3.pdf> [Accessed 28 February 2011].
Magno, A., (2001) Human Rights in Times of Conflict: Humanitarian Intervention . Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, 2 (5). [online] Available from: [Accessed 2 March 2011]
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Human Development Report (2000) Human Rights and Human Development (New York) p.19 [online] Available from: [Accessed 2 March 2011]
Charney, E., (1999) Cultural Interpretation and Universal Human Rights: A Response to Daniel A. Bell. Political Theory. 27 (6), 84. [online] Available from: [Accessed 28 February 2011]
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