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The quest for universal human rights

By Nayeefa Chowdhury - posted Wednesday, 11 January 2006

The dawn of the year 2006 has been marked by Howard Government’s Orwellian “anti-terror laws”, which have sought to violate human rights principles as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN General Assembly.

Examples include: prohibition of arbitrary detention (article 9), presumption of innocence until proven guilty (article 11), and right to privacy (article 12). What will be the prognosis of human rights principles in the 21st century?

Perhaps the recent diplomatic furore surrounding the execution of the convicted Australian drug trafficker, Nguyen Tuong Van, in Singapore could not emphasise more clearly the significance of “Human Rights” in the modern world. Is endorsement of capital punishment a violation of Human Rights? According to Amnesty International, 91 nation-states have abolished the death penalty, while it is practiced in 76 nation-states in the name of the “right of self-determination” or “sovereign choice” of the country.


Are human rights principles then relative? Or are they universal? Unless a normative judgment pertaining to the universality of human rights principles is made possible, there will always remain a perceived sense of double standard with regard to the protection of human rights, particularly when it comes to criminal tribunals.

In an increasingly interdependent world that is often referred to as a “global village”, nation-state sovereignty has gradually been weakened, necessitating an ultimate sovereignty to be delegated to a supranational body such as the UN. The violation of human rights sanctioned by the state and society during World War II was among the key influential factors in the drafting of the UDHR in 1948.

Since then, a number of international human rights schemes have been drafted, encompassing social, economic, cultural, political and civil spheres. These rights commonly include: freedom of movement, religion and expression, freedom from torture, arbitrary detention, and degrading treatment, the right to life, an adequate standard of living, education and participation in cultural and political life.

However, the universalist discourse of human rights principles has been disputed by government officials and some scholars, particularly over the past 25 years. It is not the idea of the universality of human rights principles that has been challenged - the notion of human dignity is shared almost universally across nations, religions and cultural traditions - but rather the contents of international human rights schemes have been attacked as instigated with a cultural imperialist motive by the West.

The credibility of this kind of accusation is debatable. One can argue that the modern notion of “rights-holding individuals” has largely been formed as a by-product of the conditions of exclusive rationalism and modernity, and as such, is not an inherent element of Western cultures. The history of pre-modern Western civilisation holds an astronomical record of human rights violation.

Religious “heretics” were commonly executed in the West and it was only in the 1950s that Harvard Law School began admitting women. The human rights instruments and covenants, as conceptualised in UDHR and other major UN conventions, exhibit common narrative standards based on the widest attainable consensus (pdf file 46.3KB) among nations with diverse cultural traditions, religious doctrines and ideological systems.


The contents and scope of Human Rights have shifted in reference to geo-political conditions and this has left us wondering whether the universality of human rights principles could be effectively defended. Dr Katerina Dalacoura, a lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, London School of Economics and Political Science, maintains that the universality of human rights principles can never be defended without assuming a metaphysical position with regards to the sanctity of human beings and higher order of the universe.

Secular rationalism is a prescription for a failure to upholding a universalist discourse of human rights. The philosophical foundations of human rights principles deserve to be explored here. The modern-day notion of human rights has its origin in the 17th century enlightenment philosophical thought, which can be traced back to the natural law in mediaeval Christian thought.  Natural law was conceived as “the rational individual’s […inherent] guide to morality and ethics”. Consequently, the enlightenment advocated rationality as the only means of establishing an authoritative system for seeking knowledge and truth, divorcing knowledge from revelation.

The belief in the worth of human rationality as an absolute standard (for example, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism) ultimately collapses once “revelation” is separated from “reason” in the quest for the truth and justice. If rationalism alone were deemed as an absolute standard in the search for truth, then one possible argument would be that an absolute truth, as such, does not exist. The proposition of human rationality as the sole authority over knowledge and truth, has led the world through the “inevitable progression” from the enlightenment to Nietzschean tradition, and ultimately to postmodernism. The postmodernist view of “values” and “truth” is that they are nothing in themselves, but are relative to the circumstances (for example, culture) one is exposed to, hence, a construct of one’s mind. Hence, ceases the feasibility of a universal declaration of human rights principles.

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This article was first published in HackWriters on January 3, 2006. The full article can be viewed here.

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About the Author

Nayeefa Chowdhury is the founding director of an Internet-based Islamic information service ( She writes in English & Bengali, and has contributed chapters to two books, also published in periodicals, including magazines, scholarly journals, and newspapers.

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