WEST IS NOT NECESSARILY THE BEST THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE DECLARATION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
Upon its adoption 50 years ago today, former American first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, chairperson of the commission on human rights, expressed her hope it would become “the Magna Carta of all mankind.” Ironically, as was the fate with the “great charter” of 1215, the declaration has not fully lived up to its name.
The declaration was challenged from its very inception. The commission’s first draft attracted 168 amendments from various countries. However, the final document was almost unchanged from the initial draft tabled by the commission. Forty-eight countries voted in favour, while eight countries — Poland, Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union — abstained and expressed concerns.
The conflicting views on the declaration have become more pronounced recently as human rights takes a more central role in international and domestic forums. The critics of the current human rights standards range from Islamists to proponents of Asian values. They contend the existing international human rights regime is deeply influenced by the western experience. The spotlight on the individual, the focus on rights divorced from duties, the emphasis on legalism to secure these rights and the greater priority given to civil and political rights are all hallmarks of the western bias. In contrast, the Asian and Islamic conception would emphasize community, duties to one another and society and place greater emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights.
The natural law origin of the declaration also conflicts with the Islamic view that rights are derived from divine authority. Brazil’s suggestion the declaration ought to have referred to a transcendent entity was rejected outright during the debate leading to its adoption. One argument says the denial of divine authority is essential to make the philosophy underlying rights protection universal. How can something be universal when it rejects the view of a significant component of the world’s population — Muslims as well as other religious communities — who believe in some form of divine authority? Why should the assumption of secular elites be imposed on everyone?
The extensive list of fundamental human rights are subject to certain general limitations, set out in articles 29 and 30 of the declaration. Article 29 (2), for instance, provides for “limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.” The different philosophies and views undoubtedly will produce equally valid interpretations of such restrictive articles and human rights standards in general.
A strong argument can be made that the current definition of human rights constitutes a cultural structure in which western society finds itself easily at home. This has led some human rights scholars to arrogantly conclude that most non-western societies lack not only the practice of human rights but the very concept. This clearly overlooks the fact we can only claim to be better than others because we use our own values and standards to measure them. Dominance cannot be equated with the truth, though it’s easy to get caught up in the old confusion between might and right. By what right do we impose our views on others?
It is important to acknowledge and appreciate that some non-western societies may have valid alternative conceptions of human rights. Exiled Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi once told a reporter, “I think a universal concept of human rights must come from the philosophical vision of all peoples.” The call for a more inclusive conception is laudable. Even proponents of the other views acknowledge there are certain universal values. For instance, the jailed former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, a proponent of both Asian values and Islam, writes in his book, The Asian Renaissance, “To say that freedom is western . . . is to offend our own traditions as well as our forefathers, who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustice.”
Accommodating the various conceptions within the international framework may or may not be plausible. The difficulty of the task should not prevent us from addressing the issue. If it is an impossible goal, we must at least acknowledge that human rights standards in other societies must be given equal standing and refrain from imposing western standards. Claims of universality do not ensure universal acceptance.
The belief that the current international human rights regime is derived exclusively from the ideological framework of the west is a major obstacle in its acceptance as a truly universal vision. As suggested by a number of human rights scholars, the United Nations must initiate a project to rethink and reformulate the conception of human rights, taking into account the different philosophies that share this planet. The only way to ensure universal compliance is by removing the crutch used for so long by human rights violators — that human rights is a western construct.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and freelance writer.
Note: First Published: London Free Press (Ontario, Canada) December 10, 1998, Thursday, Final EDITION
Tags: Human Rights
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