Although the UDHR was a response to the atrocities of the two world wars, it was however the result of a long discourse that stretches back through thousands of years of human history.
          What are the qualities that make us human and what rights and obligations and responsibilities do these create in our relationship with each other?
          The UDHR set out the human rights which are fundamental to the dignity and development of every human being. These range from economic rights, such as the right to work and to an adequate standard of living, to political rights such as freedom of opinion, expression and association.
          They include civil rights, such as equality before the law, and social or cultural rights, such as the right to education and to participate in the cultural life of the community. The UDHR proclaims that all these rights belong to all people.
          For many years, particularly at the height of the cold war, some governments have contested the human rights framework, arguing that it was developed and imposed to serve Western political interests.
          However, the conceptual challenge to human rights has grown in recent years, with a variety of governments and others arguing against universality, largely on cultural or religious grounds, and against indivisibility, largely on the grounds of expediency.
          Universality and indivisibility
          At the very heat  of the UNDR is the principle that human rights are universal and indivisible, that all human rights should be enjoyed by all people.
          Article I states "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights".
          More specifically Article 2 proclaims "everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedomsset forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind".
          By bringing together the range of human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social – the UDHR sets forth an indivisible as well as a universal body of rights. It enshrines the principle that human rights are inter-related, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
          However, the geo-political global divide of the cold war years allowed an artificial separation of two sets of rights. The two major human rights   treaties deriving from the UNDR reflect this division: The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political  Rights.
          These two covenants, however, affirm the indivisibility of the rights they enshrine stating:
          "The ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights".
          Although these principles have been repeatedly re-affirmed since the adoption of the UDHR, with governments from all regions of the world expressing formal support  for universality and indivisibility,  the universality has been increasingly challenged by governments and other groups on the grounds that  local culture and tradition should prevail.
          Who are these countries and groups?
          Many western governments in practise flout the principle of universality.
          The USA for example, is reluctant to be bond by international human rights treaties that  embody these principles. It stands virtually alone in not signing up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the  Child. It is one of the few countries which has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Even when it  has ratified the international human rights conventions, it has  often entered extensive reservations, refusing to be bound by many of the provisions within them.
          Domestically, not all citizens are treated equally, even within states that proudly proclaim their commitment to human rights (refugees and minorities do not always receive equal treatment and police brutality may be a problem).
          Interpretations of human rights as individualistic and detrimental to the community are misplaced.
          Human rights, by their nature, are about what kind of society we live in – the quest for a just society in which all members are treated with dignity and respect. The rights of individuals can only be respected in a truly just society. If societies were  as harmonious as some governments pretend, human rights would not be  an issue.
          The standards only come into play, because the rights of members of the community, or indeed whole sections of the community, are being violated.
          In Asia for instance, several governments argue that international human rightsstandards are based primarily on Western concepts and are incompatible with Asian societies because they focus on individual rights.
           They  point to crime, social problems and the breakdown of the family and community structures as symptoms of excessive individualism in Western societies.
          Asian people, they argue, place greater value on social harmony and are more inclined to sacrifice their self interest for the good of the community.
          Some African governments have put forward similar arguments, claiming that human rights in African society exist to ensure the  good of society as a whole; only through protecting the community can the rights of individuals be guaranteed.
          The universality of human rights has also been challenged by some governments which describe their rule as based on the Islamic faith.  They have sought to justify systematic discrimination against women in countries such as Afghanistan, by referring to the holy scriptures of  Islam.
          Throughout the UDHR, rights  are  located in a group, community or social context. Article 29 states "that everyone has duties to the community in which  alone the free and full development of his personality is possible".
          Challenges to universality also assume that cultural and religious perspectives are far more homogenous than they usually are in reality.
          When certain political leaders speak of Asian values, they speak on behalf of a region that is incredibly diverse. This is what I call the politicisation of human rights.
          More than half the world’s population  lives in Asia, speaking a multiplicity of languages and following a variety of religions.  The Japanese car worker has little in common with the rice farmer of Bangladesh, be it language, religion or social norms. The same can be said for Africa, a vast continent with many disparate traditions.
          The Islamic world also offers great diversity in both theological interpretation and social models.
          Arguments about culture and tradition often cloak political and economic interests.
          While Asian governments were preparing for the 1993 UN World Conference on  Human Rights a parallel gathering of Asian non-government organisations adopted their own statement declaring "human rights are of universal concern and are universal in value".
          A similar conference of Arab NGO’s expressed concern about the stress on regional peculiarities of culture and on natural sovereignty in relation to human rights.
          "It was noted that several countries have used "this excuse" to circumvent international  scrutiny of their application of various instruments that deal with basic rights and freedoms".
          These are the words of the very people governments challenging universality purport to represent.
          Far from being alien and foreign concepts, human rights are crucially relevant to peoplein those societies and have given birth to a growing human rights movement.
           Those who challenge universality also assert that because human rights at least as expressed in current international standards, grew out of Western liberal traditions, they are a tool of Western domination and cultural imperialism in an unjust political and economic world order.
          They argue that the UN was predominantly Western at the time of the adoption of the UDHR and that countries which have since signed up to the UN charter and principles had no choice or bargaining power.
          This belies the many diverse traditions that feed notions of human dignity. All cultures have moral codes regarding the standard of conduct that all people deserve. All societies have sought to define concepts of fundamental  justice. The sacredness of life and human dignity and the importance of justice and fair treatment are consistent and recurring themes in all philosophical and religious traditions.
          If ideas and beliefs are to be denied validity outside the geographical and cultural  bounds of their origin,  Buddhism would be confined to North India, Islam  to  Arabia and Christianity to a  narrow tract in the Middle East.
          Culture is not static. It is constantly changing, and evolving in response to interactions with other cultures. Tradition may have emphasised certain norms in the past, but this does not preclude tradition being reshaped by new realities.
          Sometimes cultural conventions  are not only  justifications for abuses, but constitute human rights violations in themselves.
          In the case of women, for instance, what is termed "culture" or "tradition" often covers practices which restrict and damage women’s life. I am referring to the female genital mutilation, the surgical removal of part or all of the sensitive genital organs.
          An estimated 130 million women and girls have been genically mutilated. The health and well-being of millions of young girls and women depends on a reform of deeply-rooted practices.
          This does not mean imposing alien cultural values, or homogenising the wonderful variety of collective human expression.
          Universality does not mean uniformity.  The contribution of different cultures at the local and global level enriches an understanding of human rights  for it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity and they have an equal right  to  achieve that.
          Indeed, in guaranteeing freedom of thought and belief, and freedom from discrimination on the basis  of  race, sex, language or other status, the UDHR serves to protect cultural and religious diversity.
          The challenges to indivisibility
           Many governments in the developing world insist on the primacy of economic growth which, they say, necessitates strong government and the subjugation of the individual’s interests to those of the community.
          They argue that only when a country has attained a certain level of economic development can it afford the luxury of civil and political freedoms.
          But economic growth is no guarantee of economic and social rights. Many governments in the developed world have dismantled elements of their welfare provision and have greatly reduced access to free education, health care and social security  leaving many homeless and hungry, even within the wealthiest nations.
          In many ways the challenge  to  indivisibility of rights echoes the cultural challenge to universality outlined above. It shows that opposition to the legitimacy of human rights is ultimately about political and economic power, not cultural or religious values. It also highlights the intrinsic link between the universality and indivisibility of human rights.
          People cannot advance their economic, social and cultural rights without some degree of political space and freedom.
          Just as economic and social disadvantage prevents  people from exercising fully their civil and political rights, so too political repression obstructs people from defending and advancing their economic and social rights.
          Governments around the world seek to justify violations of this kind in the name of development and economic competitiveness. They deny the indivisibility of human rights, claiming that if they concentrate on economic rights, other rights will surely follow.
          But economic growth does not necessarily translate into genuine human development. Development is a process embracing the place of individuals in civil society, their security and  capacity to determine and realise their potential.
            It is about the realisation of human rights – all human rights.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *