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Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) a mere Expression of Western Values?
By Teddy Foday-Musa.
Aug 31, 2010, 17:16
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The universality of human rights is often defended by cosmopolitan scholars in light of the need for universal principles of justice to be applied cross-nationally. This ever-expanding concept of universal human right has led to the creation of countless human rights organizations whose aim is to monitor the state of human rights around the world and to prevent human rights abuses. However, not every nation appreciates the work that these organizations do. Some countries do not believe in the universality of human rights or in the primacy of what they see as a western ideology imposed on them. This Article would examine the assertion that Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) merely expresses Western values. The Article will not present a one-sided position on this assertion, but would explore the senses in which human rights can (and cannot) be said to be universal. The Article would also throw light on the historical background of UDHR and its basic content. The conclusion would be an endorsement of the concept of overlapping consensus, proposed by John Rawls and supported by Cortina, the Spanish scholar, as a means of arriving at a genuine unforced international consensus on the application and global acceptability of human rights.

The concept of modern human rights has continued to evolve since the Age of Enlightenment. Up until the Second World War several countries had proclaimed declarations concerning human rights (e.g. Bill of Rights, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens, etc.) but no universal one existed. The reflections of the Second World War atrocities highlighted the need for a universal declaration (Human Right Defence, 2010). Consequently, two years after the creation of United Nation (UN) the UNs Secretary-General Trygve Lie requested a declaration draft from the UNs Economic and Social Council, who delegated the task to the Commission on Human Rights.

The events responsible for formalizing the concept of human right include the Glorious Revolution, which in 1668 brought King William and Queen Mary to the English throne; Thomas Jeffersons writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776; the passage of the U.S. Bill of Right in 1789; and the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens by the French Constituent Assembly, also in 1789. This period coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, a time when writers and philosophers such as John Locke and Voltaire began to argue for the primacy of reason, science, and natural rights- rights that all people are entitled to, that cannot be taken away by any king or government. Their writings became the content of our modern doctrine of human rights.

The Doctrine of human rights is one of the main concepts which are created to protect every single human being not dependent on race, nationality or other differences. Human rights are about human dignity and the fact that no one can take this dignity away or humiliate another human being. Human rights are about the notion that dignity is an inborn characteristic of a man and that the inalienable rights for equality are the basis of liberty and justice on the planet in general and each community in particular. Human rights are basic rights and freedoms to which all human are entitled. Proponents of the concept usually assert that all humans are endowed with certain entitlements merely by reason of being human (Freeman, 2002:17). Human rights are thus conceived in a Universalist and egalitarian fashion.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed and then adopted by the General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948. The main priority of the given declaration is to promote a profound respect of the rights and freedoms of each individual belonging to every nationality and create a universal guaranty that will help in the process of monitoring of the recognition of these human rights and freedoms. This is a document which became the point where morality intersected with law and any violation of human rights started being unacceptable just because all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights (UDHR, 1948: Article 1). According to the documents preamble the recognition of personal dignity and the inalienable right to be treated equally is the necessary base to maintain the freedom and justice of the world.

The Declaration is completely based on the notion that people possess human right to life, liberty, security of person, the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law and because they are human beings in the first place and not citizens of a particular country. This is the basis of the universality of this declaration for it was written for each and every human being on the planet. Human rights, also deals with the prohibition of slavery and servitude, bears against torture, cruelty, arbitrary arresting, detention or exile.

Article 11 states that everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has all the guarantees necessary for his defence (UDHR, 1948), an absolute corresponds to the notion of the concept of dignity each human being is born with. The right to freedom of movement and residence, the right for education and work, the right to seek asylum from persecution, the right to have a nationality, the right to family reunion, the right to have private property, the freedom of thought, opinion, conscience and religion. Neglecting these rights and freedoms goes against the true nature of humanism. The 30 articles of the declaration are aimed to create a world in which people will have the freedom of speech and opinion, will be free from fear and promote an active aspiration for a better world.

However, the universality of human rights, and the role of the West in formulating those rights, continues to be hotly debated. The argument in favour of ignoring regional values has won the day in many quarters. Many people and most scholars argue that, regional values must be taken into consideration and that Western Europe and North American values are over represented in the Declaration of Human Rights and therefore biased against the values of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan observes that the hard core of rights that is truly universal is smaller than the West (has) maintained. (2002). Therefore, according to most countries in these regions, the UDHR lacks the ethos of universality, tinted with Western oriented values and ideologies.

The origin of the UDHR is another issue that serves to question the universality of the concept. Scholars argue that the Document cannot be seen as a truly universal one with regards either to its origins, given the strong Western bias in the U.N. at the time of its formulation, or with regards to its acceptance throughout the world. And in terms of universal acceptance, Communist China, and parts of the Muslim world rejected many of its provisions. For instance, Saudi Arabia rejected the Declarations commitment to freedom of religion, as threatening to their countrys constitutional religious setup (Villa-Vicencio, 1992: 118).

Another argument against universality has been projected from the angle of the Declaration not being a document binding on all nations. It is argued that the Declaration is not itself a law, but a set of prima facie ideas, and has only been worked into international law through later U.N. Covenants that were signed as treaties, and which contained similar articles (Villa-Vicencio, 1992: 119). In essence, the Declarations did not come with a universal outlook in terms of commitment that should bind all states together-as-one in recognising and upholding it as a universal document. It was a commitment designed out of the interest of countries in Western Europe and North America thus the modern conception of human rights developed in the aftermath of the Second World War, in part as a response to the Holocaust, culminating in the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly (Nickel, 1987: 46). Most of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have to do with countries in Western Europe and North America, which were not directly relevant to countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. This in itself took away the universality of the Declaration.

However, because of the key role played by the United Nations (UN) in framing and popularising the concept of human right globally, the Declaration has won universal support from countries around the globe. For instance, it has won the support of a number of countries in the global South, including Pakistan, which alters the argument about regional and value bias presented by Muslim countries. The role of Pakistan in the fight against terror is a clear pointer to their support and acceptance of the UDHR. Therefore, it is not fair to see the Declaration as completely the product of Western ideologies that are not universal.

Most scholars in support of the universality of the Declaration argue that human rights are often held to be universal in the sense that most societies and cultures around the globe have practiced human rights throughout most of their history. Such activities became part of their customs and traditional values, which were later transformed into constitutional sources, and have today, formed the backbone of their modern constitutions. According to Pollis and Schwab, All societies cross-culturally and historically manifest conceptions of human rights (1979: 3). Therefore, the concept of human right is a universal doctrine that has the inputs of all nations regardless of regional blocks and cultural differences.

As a way forward in the ongoing debate on the universality of human rights, Taylor maintains that arriving at a genuine, unforced international consensus on human rights could be achieved through something like what John Rawls described as an overlapping consensus (1999: 57). The concept of overlapping consensus articulates the point that, different groups and communities, while holding different or incompatible religious or philosophical commitments, would agree on certain norms that ought to govern human conduct.

Cortina, who throws her weight behind Rawls, maintains that human rights are set of demands not mere aspirations whose realisation and protection should be legally binding on the corresponding bodies (1990: 59). The reason is that the fulfilment of these demands and respect for these rights are the conditions of possibility for speaking of human beings in a meaningful way. She insists on the search for ethical criteria that are valid universally for enacting human rights as norms, whilst taking into account the varieties of moral maximums held by different cultures as long as they do not violate the minimal ethical criteria. Cortina refers to what she terms as moral pluralism as indicative of the common values that make possible the coexistence of different communities in a single society despite the diversity of their own moral projects (1990: 57).

ording to Cortina, these values would eventually represent a set of minimal ethics or procedural ethics (1990: 57). These are non-negotiable demands of justice recognised throughout society and from which we could proceed jointly to build a global consensus over those values. Cortina insists on the need to pursue intercultural dialogue among different cultures to decide on the set of values that humanise all of us without exception (1990: 58). In her view, the Kantian idea of human dignity as something valuable in itself, and the ethics of dialogue based on the value of mutual recognition may provide the basis for a good ethical program for the universality of human rights in the 21st century. I concluded with the supporting view of the Spanish scholar, Cortina, with regards the concept of overlapping consensus as a way forward to enhance the universality of human rights globally.


By: Teddy Foday-Musa.

Teddy is a holder of a Masters Degree in International Studies, in the field of Peace and Conflict Resolution, from the University of Queensland (UQ) Brisbane, Australia. He is currently in The Netherlands and can be contacted on:

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