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Are human rights universal?
Shashi Tharoor answers some frequently asked questions.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is half a century old, but critics are still asking whether anything in our multicultural, diverse world can be truly universal.

Some ask, isn’t human rights an essentially Western concept, ignoring the very different cultural, economic and political realities of the South? Can the values of the consumer society be applied to societies that have nothing to consume? Isn’t talking about universal rights rather like saying that the rich and the poor both have the same right to fly first-class and to sleep under bridges? At the risk of sounding frivolous: when you stop a man in traditional dress beating his wife, are you upholding her human rights or violating his?

The fact is that there are serious objections to the concept of universal human rights which its defenders need to acknowledge honestly, the better to refute them.

The first is philosophical. All rights and values are defined and limited by cultural perceptions. There is no universal culture, therefore there are no universal human rights. Some philosophers have objected that the concept is founded on an individualistic view of people, whose greatest need is to be free from interference by the state. Non-Western societies often have a communitarian ethic which sees society as more than the sum of its individual members and considers duties to be more important than rights. In Africa it is usually the community that protects and nurtures the individual: ‘I am because we are, and because we are therefore I am.’ In most African societies, group rights had precedence over individual rights and conflict resolution would not necessarily be based on the assertion and defence of legal rights.

Then there is the usual North/South argument. The Universal Declaration was adopted at a time when most Third World countries were still under colonial rule. ‘Human rights’ are only a cover for Western intervention in the affairs of the developing world. Developing countries, some also argue, cannot afford human rights since the tasks of nation-building and economic development are still unfinished. Suspending or limiting human rights is thus the sacrifice of the few for the benefit of the many. The human-rights concept is understood and upheld only by a small Westernized minority in developing countries; it does not extend to the lowest rungs of the ladder. Universality in these circumstances would be a universality of the privileged.

Many also object to specific rights which they say reflect Western cultural bias: the right, for instance, to political pluralism, the right to paid vacations (always good for a laugh in the sweatshops of the developing world) and, most troublesome of all, the rights of women. How can women’s rights be universal in the face of widespread divergences of cultural practice, when in some societies marriage is seen not as a contract between two individuals but as an alliance between lineages, and when the permissible behaviour of womenfolk is central to the society’s perception of its honour?

In addition, some religious leaders argue that human rights can only be acceptable if they are founded on transcendent values of their faith, sanctioned by God. The Universal Declaration claims no such heritage – a draft reference to the Creator was consciously left out of the final text. There is a built-in conflict between the universality of human rights and the particularity of religious perspectives.

How can one respond to these objections? Concepts of justice and law, the legitimacy of government, the dignity of the individual, protection from oppressive or arbitrary rule and participation in the affairs of the community are found in every society on the face of this earth. The challenge of human rights is to identify the common denominators rather than to throw up one’s hands at the impossibility of universalism.

The objections also reflect a false opposition between the primacy of the individual and society. Culture is too often cited as a defence against human rights by authoritarians who crush culture domestically when it suits them. In any case, which country can truly claim to be following its ‘traditional culture’ in a pure form? None have remained in a pristine state; all have been subject to change and distortion by external influence, both as a result of colonialism and through participation in modern inter-state relations. You cannot follow the model of a ‘modern’ nation-state cutting across tribal boundaries and conventions, and then argue that tribal traditions should be applied to judge the human-rights conduct of that modern state.

There is nothing sacrosanct about culture anyway. Culture is constantly evolving in any living society, responding to both internal and external stimuli, and there is much in every culture that societies quite naturally outgrow and reject. Are we, as Indians, obliged to defend, in the name of our culture, the practices of sati or of untouchability? The fact that slavery was acceptable across the world for at least two thousand years does not make it acceptable to us now.

The basic problem with cultural relativism is that it subsumes all members of a society under a framework they may prefer to disavow. If dissenters within each culture are free to opt out and to assert their individual rights – for example, Muslim women in my country, India, have the right not to marry under Muslim Personal Law – then it is a different story.

The case that women’s rights emerge from a Western ethos is often vociferously made by men. Let us concede that child marriage, female circumcision and the like are not found reprehensible by many societies; but let us also ask victims of these practices how they feel about them. How many teenage girls who have had their genitalia mutilated would have agreed if they had had the human right to refuse? For me, the standard is simple: where coercion exists, rights are violated and these violations must be condemned, whatever the traditional justification. Coercion, not culture, is the test.

On religion, it is my belief that people allow God to be blamed for their own sins, and that human rights as we understand them are fully compatible with the secular understanding of all faiths. Every religion seeks to embody certain verities that are applicable to all humanity – justice, truth, mercy, compassion – though the details of their interpretation vary.

As for the suspension of human rights in the interests of paternalistic development: authoritarianism promotes repression not development. Amartya Sen has pointed out that it is the availability of political and civil rights which give people the opportunity to draw attention to their needs and to demand action from the government. In fact, Sen’s work has established that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press. Though there may be cases where authoritarian societies have had success in achieving economic growth, Botswana, an exemplar of democracy in Africa, has grown faster than most authoritarian states.

A number of developing countries – notably India, China, Chile, Cuba, Lebanon and Panama – played an active and highly influential part in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The principles of human rights have been widely adopted, imitated and ratified by developing countries, so it is hardly fair to suggest they have been imposed on them.

When one hears of the unsuitability or ethnocentricism of human rights, what are the unstated assumptions? What exactly are these human rights that someone in a developing country can easily do without? Not the right to life, I hope. Freedom from torture? The right not to be enslaved, not to be physically assaulted, not to be arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned or executed? No-one actually advocates in so many words the abridgement of any of these rights. Tolerance and mercy have always and in all cultures been ideals of government rule and human behaviour. Objections to the applicability of international human-rights standards have all-too-frequently been voiced by authoritarian rulers and power élites to rationalize their violations of human rights – violations which serve primarily, if not solely, to sustain them in power. Just as the Devil can quote scripture for his purpose, Third World communitarianism can be the slogan of a deracinated tyrant trained, as in the case of Pol Pot, at the Sorbonne. The authentic voices of the Third World know how to cry out in pain. Let us heed them.

At the same time, the idea that human rights could be ensured merely by the state not interfering with individual freedom cannot survive confrontation with a billion hungry, deprived, illiterate and jobless human beings around the globe. Human rights, in one memorable phrase, start with breakfast.

For the sake of the deprived, the notion of human rights has to embrace not just protection from the state but also protection of the state, to permit human beings to fulfil the basic aspirations which are frustrated by poverty and scarce resources. We have to accept that social deprivation and economic exploitation are just as evil as political oppression or racial persecution. This calls for a more profound approach to both human rights and to development. We cannot exclude the poorest of the poor from the universality of the rich.

Of course universality does not presuppose uniformity. In asserting the universality of human rights, I do not suggest that our views of human rights transcend all possible philosophical, cultural or religious differences or represent a magical aggregation of the world’s ethical and philosophical thought systems. Rather, it is enough that they do not fundamentally contradict the ideals and aspirations of any society, and that they reflect our common humanity. Human rights, in other words, derive from the mere fact of being human; they are not the gift of a particular government or legal code.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of five books of fiction and non-fiction, including The Great Indian Novel and, most recently, India: From Midnight to the Millennium. He is a senior UN official in the Office of Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

For the standards being proclaimed internationally to become reality we have to work towards their ‘indigenization’ – their assertion within each country’s traditions and history. If different approaches are welcomed within the human-rights consensus, this can guarantee universality, enrich the intellectual and philosophical debate and so complement, rather than undermine, the concept of worldwide human rights. Human rights can keep the world safe for diversity.

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