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Universalism of Human Rights

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This essay will look at whether or not human rights are valid for all people everywhere. The main approach to this is to try to apply universalism to the given claim, as well as using a relativist approach to give some perspective. A brief understanding of the definition and perception of human rights must also be given so as to determine the context in which the claim is being investigated. To define human rights is difficult as it is a belief. Different approaches can be taken by every individual, which is why there is such a deviation in the perception of rights and the importance we give them.

However, the most commonly accepted definition of human rights is that they are the basic needs that are applicable to every human being1. Just by this definition, one is already given the first supportive statement of the universality of human rights; that they are applicable to everyone that qualifies as a human being2. As human rights are fundamentally a belief, then the approach to the use and application of human rights differs from person to person depending on our means of perceiving this belief. But, just because the reason why we believe in something is different, doesn’t mean that there aren’t any commonalities3 in what we believe.

This is a matter of individualism, and whether we approach human rights from an emotional, political, religious or even philosophical point of view, is irrelevant. What matters in the end is that the outcome is an understanding of the basic needs that are applicable to every human being. Thereby, the context in which we must look at the given claim is simply based upon the definition of human rights. Can basic needs actually be valid, and accepted, for all people, everywhere? By means of globalisation, the world is becoming smaller.

It is now appropriate to speak of an international community where the issues of one state often affect the unity and coexistence of many others. By this one can see a shift towards universalism, where states work in unity to achieve ideals. There are several institutions already in place which help to preserve this community as well as implicating laws and courses of action that must be followed. These institutions include the United Nations (founded 1948)4, the European Union (founded as the EEC in 1957)5, as well as organisations such as NATO (founded 1949)6 which work to protect international treaties.

All of these organisations work to protect the international community as well attempting to ensure that there is equal treatment of all parties. Both the UN and EU have documents to determine and protect human rights worldwide7. However, these organisations could easily be perceived as western institutions trying to impose their ideals upon the rest of the world. In some sense, although these organisations are expanding continuously, they misrepresent the idea of an international community as they limit their decisions and control to those who have power. For example, within the UN it is basically the Security Council8 that is in control.

By this one can see that not only does the UN not include all the states in the world, but its actions are controlled by only five states. Another limitation to all the mentioned institutions is that they were all founded after the Second World War by the sovereign powers. Again this exemplifies how they are seemingly western institutions that only came into existence when the people in the ‘west’9 were presented with human rights violations. These institutions are meant to be seen as bodies moving towards universalism but instead they are considered as western institutions that are imposing their views on the rest of the world.

But, as the world is still in the process of globalisation, then the shift towards universalism isn’t complete. These institutions represent the shift that is happening, they are working towards global equality, and they are potentially the organisations that can implement this. The views they represent through their charters and declarations are potentially valid for all people, this is at least the intention behind them. The universalism of human rights is basically the idea that human rights are applicable to all human beings.

It uses the idea of minimalism; going down to the level where we are all simply human beings and therefore deserve to have all the same basic rights. Protecting people by universalism is a way of protecting everybody without discrimination. But even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights creates distinctions between people to protect those that are more vulnerable to human rights violations (such as women, children, minorities and so on10). Although a distinction is made, it is a distinction that is in place to ensure that all people are guaranteed the same basic rights.

Although an article is in place just to protect women11, it is there as others would not be subject to the same violation; it essentially creates equality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an internationally accepted document even though it may not be enforced worldwide. The mere acceptance of it is clear support of universalism. Using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one can see that there is a strong western influence present. Human rights present the ideas of basic needs, and in some articles the Universal Declaration goes further than this from a cultural perspective.

When there are multiple cultures present, there will be multiple beliefs. What is seen as a basic need in one state may be considered a luxury in another12. This divide can particularly be seen between developing and developed states. This somehow disqualifies the Universal Declaration as a true representative of human rights as it goes beyond the scope of universal basic needs. The Universal Declaration, however, does take some differences of culture into account. The articles are vaguely stated; they indicate what should be enforced but not how to enforce it.

This allows for a state to approach human rights in their own way. For example, the right to a fair trial13 does not mean that all trials have to be carried out in the same way by the same system. It allows for the legal proceedings of a state to be preserved and avoids going against the constitution (if present) of a state14. The main problem that Universal Declaration faces is that it is not law, and that it is vague and not deeply implemented into any culture, whereas constitution and the actual law of a state is deeply founded and highly influential on the given culture.

An example of this is Islamic law that allows for the right hand to be chopped off a thief, which is a human rights violation. But as the Islamic law is deeply founded and the Universal Declaration isn’t, it can be hard to implement the idea of human rights15. However, the fact that the Universal Declaration is not truly integral to any culture supports its universality as it is not based on one culture. The main problem that universalism is faces with is the cultural perspective that is almost innate in all human beings.

Almost all human beings wish to belong to a culture and they are deeply supportive of their culture even though it may support human rights violations. This makes it difficult to enforce human rights internationally as people often feel a stronger obligation towards their culture. At the same time, however, it is important to emphasise the necessity of community to protect rights16; the obligation to enforce the rules of ones community is the only way to approach this. Human rights can only be enforced through communities, not by individuals.

The world does not at the moment support a complete Universalist approach to human rights. But it is clear that since World War Two, there has been a shift towards this ideology, by the creation of the international community and the institutions that support and govern it. The problems that are faced are: that there is not yet a full Universalist and independent body to implement and enforce human rights, that at the moment human rights are perceived as a western ideal, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not law and that belonging to a culture makes it harder to implement a code of common ideals.

But, the fact that the world is continuously globalising is an indication that there could be a full international community where a code of common ideals can be implemented and enforced by law. Human rights are not definite, they are constantly changing and it is seemingly impossible for them to be held constantly in equal regards. Although human rights cannot be enforced worldwide does not mean that they are invalid. The definition of human rights states that they are applicable to all human beings. There is no discrimination of culture, which is the main opposition to the universal implementation of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created to lay out the rights that all people by definition deserve. There is intent for it to be universal. This creates a potential validity and does not mean that human rights have to be universally enforced at the moment. Human rights can be valid for all people everywhere in theory. But that does not mean that there aren’t violations taking place in different cultures. It’s a matter of what people deserve, not necessarily what they have. Based on the definition of human rights, they are valid for all people everywhere. Whether or not they are being enforced is a different question.

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