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Are human rights universal or do they differ from country to country?

Turiya Kalyan– Turiya Kalyan, class 10 student, APL Global School, Chennai

The earliest mentions of human rights were by Greek philosophers like Aristotle and their notion of ‘natural rights’. Thomas Aquinas further developed this idea in his Summa Theologica. Are human rights universal or do they differ from country to country? I say they are not universal. At the same time, human rights cannot be hijacked by customs/traditions and held hostage by regressive leaders who will twist anything in their favor. Human rights must continue their dynamic evolution over time before we can call them universal. But this evolution must be assisted in every way possible by right-thinking individuals who will bring intellectual, physical, and financial resources to bear to attack the problem.

Every state has a varied level of human rights. The top 1% of the world enjoys about 32% of the world’s wealth while the bottom 50% only has 2% of it. With this level of wealth comes power which leads to expansion and domination. The dominant expanding power naturally attempts to project its conception of human rights onto all the weaker sections of the world. 

It seems to me a well-established fact that different states have different levels of respect towards the maintenance of human rights. This depends on various factors such as culture, religion, laws, and social acceptance. In some states, such as Norway and Iceland, human rights and the protection of these fundamental rights are a priority. It shows in how developed they are and in the happiness, safety, and security provided to the people in these states. Other states like Libya and Saudi Arabia show less importance towards these matters and it is evident there as well. Below is a visual representation of the levels of human rights protection around the world.

A section of people who have their human rights violated on a regular basis is women. The atrocities they go through are appalling. The recent overturning of Roe vs. Wade is just one of the major problems women’s rights are going through. In some households, women are forced to start a family and run a household instead of furthering their education or careers. Most would see this as a basic removal of rights while others see this as the liberation of women. They see it as freeing them from pressures and allowing them to do what they feel is the appropriate role. Some countries to this day still don’t legally see marital rape as rape. This is one glaring example that makes it evident to me that human rights differ from country to country, and that they are not universal. When in some parts of the world consent is not seen as required post-marriage we know there need to be large amounts of immediate change and improvement.

Since the conception of human rights evolves in societies over time based on their specific cultural norms, it is tempting to argue that human rights cannot be universal across societies. Such an argument is flawed. There are common threads of Human Rights that cut across societies. These transcultural threads are at the heart of modern society. These have grown with the globalization of commerce, information, and technology. In tandem with this, aspirations for a certain quality of life have also started to move along similar pathways in varied cultures around the world.

On the other hand, the argument that human rights should be universal across the world brings with it the problems of no regard for sovereignty, local customs, and traditional nuances. This severely limits this approach. It brings a certain muscular insensitivity to the problem, making it worse. Franck questions in his piece ‘Are Human Rights Universal’ when we judge human rights in different states, are we imposing western norms on them and impeding their sovereignty? The globalization post the World Wars prompted people to take a deeper look at human rights and shape them to be the way we know them today. States don’t appreciate the imposition of the west’s ideas of human rights on the way they run their states. An example of this is when Jamaica broke the ICCPR when it used the death penalty. Jamaica simply withdrew from the provision that allows individuals to file complaints to the ICCPR and their argument was one made by many states in the same position: “respect our culture, our unique problems”.

My central argument, therefore, is that the approach to human rights should reflect an intelligent integration between the essence of the local traditions and the emerging transcultural threads which reflect a growing undercurrent of global aspiration. As Walzer points out succinctly, in his Just and Unjust Wars, an intervention is permissible only in response to acts that “shock the moral conscience of mankind”. This “moral conscience” is developing an increasing common ground around the world. However, there are also forces acting in exactly the opposite direction of isolationism and exceptionalism.

Reb Tevye in The Fiddler on The Roof famously says, “You may ask, “How did this tradition get started?” I’ll tell you! I don’t know.” And this is the crux of the issue of why traditions should not be given a carte-blanche in terms of their power to define human rights. While the assumption normally is that traditions and local customs have evolved keeping in mind the best interests of that society this is not always true. It is the nature of man to gravitate towards imposing his will and oftentimes, unfortunately, the imposition of will has nothing to do with keeping the rights of the common man in mind. Radhika Coomarswami uses precisely this central argument when she says “practices such as female genital mutilation, flogging, stoning, and amputation of limbs as well as laws restricting women’s rights to marriage, divorce, maintenance, and custody are all inauthentic perversions of various religious dogmas.” Even more powerfully she concludes that “cultural diversity should be celebrated only if those enjoying their cultural attributes are doing so voluntarily”

However, the above position should not open the door to the counter-argument that an external dominant power can simply waltz in to replace centuries of traditions it barely understands but quickly and superficially judges. Here the application of tri-dimensional ethics is powerful.  As Russia sweeps into Ukraine, the Western coalition swept into the Middle East, or when the British swept into India, the intent was political and economic domination and exploitation. Such an invading power speaking about the human rights of the people and cultures it destroys surely fails the first of the tri-dimensional test: intention. 

It would seem therefore that a global or universal standard for human rights would only be possible if there was a homogenization of cultures globally. A world with a single globalized culture would be a terrifyingly monochromatic one. Hopefully, the answers lie somewhere else. 

The question then arises, what should be a foundational approach to human rights? Since human rights can neither be based only on local traditions and customs nor can it be based simply on the world view of the economically and politically dominant powers, the only hope for the evolution of a universal framework for human rights lies in creating a widely accepted consensus of human rights that derives its legitimacy from the moral compass of people & from strengthening the emerging strands of transcultural consensus of Human Rights.  This will not happen automatically. This has to be consciously and systematically worked on.

Societies give States the power and the authority to evolve their conception of human rights. In democratic societies, the will of the people flows upward and is a central calculus in the final law-making process. This system potentially guarantees the least possible corruption in the process of converting public opinions into law. I would be deeply suspicious of any human rights framework which flows from authoritarian states; given that the ascent of the authoritarian leader has nothing to do with the will of the people. Given how central the views of the people are in creating a framework for human rights, it is critical that their views are well-informed, argued, and nuanced. This is only possible if the education system is vibrant and robust.

In essence, the two best guarantors of eventually creating a universal framework for human rights that respects both local traditions and the emerging transcultural threads of human rights are to work for the growth of democracy and education around the world. This is the war of ideas that needs to be joined urgently. Hopefully, we will not forget in the frenzy of this war that the very conception of democracy and education is partially rooted in local customs and traditions. 

Also read: India’s human rights crusaders #HumanRightsDay

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