Universality of rights:
establishing dialogue, transgressing borders,
Submitted to The London School of Economics for the MSc in Human Rights with Politics by Rosário Frada
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the subsequent covenants were intended to create a worldwide safety net of rights adequate to all, independently of time, space or culture. Today critics such as Brown (2007:41) claim that “virtually everything encompassed by…. ‘human rights’ is subject of controversy”. Regarding their universality, two main arguments emerge: (1) Human rights can only be universal if the entire world resembles the particular society from which they emerged (ibid.) and (2), they are a tool for Western imperialism (Douzinas,.2007;.Singh,.2002;.Heuer and Schirmer,.1998).
This essay reflects upon both above-mentioned controversies through historical and philosophical lenses, identifying fallacies in both arguments and demonstrating that universal human rights are necessary. We argue the claim regarding Western Imperialism is inherently colonial, and cultural relativism denies an objective truth going beyond individual subjectivities and aiding in creating a space for dialogue between societies that still allows for their pluralism.
The Fallacy in Imperialism and Relativism
Rejecting universal human rights because they represent new forms of Western imperialism not only distorts history but repeats it: disregarding Third World achievements to amplify the power of Western elites. Rengger (2011:1173) describes universal human rights as “a mask for Western interests” and Douzinas (2007:viii) asks whether they are_an “ideological gloss of an emerging empire”. What seems to be unrecognised, is that making these claims without acknowledging the significant role non-Western states played in drafting and universalizing rights reinforces a Western-generated racial hierarchy that creates the “us” vs. “them” inequality (Burke,.2010;Glendon,.2003).
By failing to celebrate the achievements of “the others”, economic, social and political divisions are consolidated and stereotypes regarding developing nations unresolved. Ironically, those claiming that universal human rights are a tool advancing the Western Empire are often white Westerners, who, it seems, in attempts to fight for others’ rights, become the first ones to embrace the imperialist persona who oppresses. To deny the crucial role played by Third World states in achieving universality is to obscure achievements of the Global South. Whilst Western colonial powers used cultural relativism language to resist extending human rights to their colonies, India, Iraq and others played crucial roles in battling for universality (Burke,.2020).
Ignoring the politics of decolonization not only represses former colonies but entraps universal human rights, which require mutual recognition and respect to be embraced if a collective humanity is to be upheld. Note that arguing against universal human rights supporting a Western Empire does not mean they are not being instrumentalized in that way. After the 9/11 attacks the US narrowed the definition of_torture (Clapham,.2007). Human rights’ ideology, to strive for universalism and_cosmopolitanism, is not a means to achieve a political end; rather, cultural relativism and the associated sovereignty strengthens the “us” vs. “them” hierarchy.
But is Universalism truly possible? Bioethics is marked by constantly emerging subjectivities; can we talk about the viability of a common language?
Universalism presupposes an authentic overcoming of the relativity of opinions to the extent to which it is possible to transcend the relation between a belief and its followers. Although arguing for a relative universalism, Donnelly (1984) suggests a belief within a certain system can be overridden by a compelling external judgment; cultural relativism can be defeated by the objective reality/truth – an ideal reference point that aids the coexistence of societies in their plurality – upon which universal human rights lies. However, it is first important to reflect upon whether it is possible to transcend subjectivities. The question is complex; we must accept the risk of oversimplifying.
To argue for cultural relativism is to claim that an objective reality that extends beyond the subject does not exist. Its fundamentals lie on the inability to confront any belief with the truth; this assumption is made absolute rather than relative, contradicting relativism’s presupposed basis. A coherent relativist position must not exclude access to essential and fundamental truths to a life in society. It is difficult to envision cultural_justifications against rights connected to human dignity like protection against torture; a_morally fortified society must acknowledge them (Singh,.2020). It must be accepted that reaching the truth is viable; moral judgments, for example, are_universal, as suggested by Kant’s categorical imperative but also by the distinction between self-interested and principled action. Relativism must be relativized. Otherwise, it cancels itself out.
If everything were to be subjective, relativism would itself become relative. Whilst we observe identical realities through varying perspectives, the mystery behind humanity requires us to search for the objective truth through reason. All knowledge exists between the subject who knows and the object of knowledge. From a societal viewpoint, we are all subjective: each carries experiences that make our knowledge-acquisition subjective. Consequently, one’s perspective regarding human rights will always rely on relative knowledge; this does not mean rights are relative and an objective reality impossible to reach. The question becomes whether we can and want to get close to this underlying truth, since it is an ideal reference.
There are more aspects uniting societies than fragmenting them; the common base present in modern societies overcomes the instinct of self-preservation postulated by Hobbes (1651). If human dignity is relative, one could easily dedicate himself to honour killings in India in the name of culture (Singh,.2020). With relativism, one cannot impose their way of being on others; each becomes subject to eternal imposition and we would lose our right to deem paedophilia unacceptable. Only by assuming an objective reality exists, as Locke (n.d.) does when claiming we own our own lives, may we ask others to respect certain values and accept the responsibility to reciprocate. If not, everything becomes about power relations rather than the power of reason. Consequently, if the truth disappears, so does the error, the bad. In a Nazi concentration camp, a guard hit a prisoner who asked “Why?”. He answered “Here “why?” does not exist”. Without an objective reference point to which we can appeal, even if not absolutely possessed by anyone, we become subordinates to_the rule of the tyrant rather than reason.
The relativist position posits assertions cannot be compared nor compete for the truth, otherwise judgments could be made upon them. However, tolerance does not translate into equalizing opinions. Being a paedophile or anti-paedophilia is not the same. The definition of tolerance lies in being able to live with differences in a space where those differences are non-essential (in paedophilia, they are crucial). When we claim there is no objective reality that justifies and strengthens dialogue that improves the understanding of reality, we open the door to dogmatism. If such were the case, Western Imperialism would defeat Anticolonialism. As Afnan claimed, “Differences … [are] wholly foreign to the field of human rights; nowadays, it [can] no longer be claimed that some civilizations_were essentially different from others” (Burke,.2010:119). It seems that claims for cultural relativism based on intractable cultural differences perpetuate_the subjugation of colonial people. This way of thinking ensured the triumph of the universality of human rights, key for the development of various instruments.
It becomes evident that there must be a common, objective base – even if imperfect – in which a safe space for dialogue, understanding and improving our ability to reach reality if reality has an objective reality. Why were the Nazis condemned in the Nuremberg trials if they simply followed Nazi rules? Their condemnation was based on the law of humanity, fundamental and common to all, deeming such crimes inexcusable. Why? Because rationality exists and a unique human nature exists independent of any identity vector. If the world loses its floors, nihilism and absurdism defeat unified societies and global peace.
For the relativist, the (human) reasoning is a mirage. Denying rational argumentation opposes the ordinary experience and aspiration of any human being. It is, therefore, contradictory. Our social experience lies on ample consensus, established through recognising a common human essence that does not need to interfere in a community’s moral autonomy and self- determination. This consensus is not relative and must not be any time in the future.
Today, a wider discussion surrounding universal values emerges, transgressing historical, geographical and cultural borders. This requires universal human rights to form a consensus, which in turn helps establish a dialogue in which all can participate. Human rights are multicultural whilst simultaneously transcending cultural differences; they should pose no threat to legitimate claims for cultural self-preservation. These movements result from multiple factors, often linked to those explaining globalization. This expression marks an unprecedented increase of our interdependencies. The appearance or discovery of various challenges that only at a global level can be resolved, from climate change to poverty eradication, demonstrate that independently of the divergent methods to attain consensus, we face long-lasting factors that shape the fight of generations.
This will be reflected in culture, by confronting and sharing values, increasingly open to scrutiny, and in scientific, legal and philosophical discussions. This presents us with the challenge of figuring out whether, and to what extent, must the dynamic process of the necessary universalization of human rights be accompanied and oriented by law, science, philosophy and culture.
This essay proposes a framework for comprehension and consensus that safeguards social peace and legitimizes universal human rights whilst respecting the plurality of societies. The idea is not to engage in dogmatism but acknowledge a set of universal human rights that allow pluralities. Now, the question becomes how their universality can be implemented in a way that does not necessarily entail homogeneity nor relativism. Due to the restricted length of this paper, it is sufficient to say that human rights must be valuable, in which dignity, equality and justice shine through. Only understood this way may they satisfy the ambition to attain truth and justice, which concedes freedom to the human and the ability to materialize it.