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Last Updated: 09/12/2011
Are Human Rights Universal?
Dipo Djungdjungan Summa

Dipo Djungdjungan Summa argues that human rights be treated as a universal value, despite their link to "western" culture, because of their emphasis on non-discrimination and multiculturalism, as well as their ability to curb the power of states and other organizations over individuals.

What are human rights? By definition, they are entitlements exercised against the state in order to protect the human dignity of a person, precisely because of that person's humanness. The entitlements are given not because that person is a member of a particular social or political group; they are not given because of the status of his/her birth; they are given simply because of the fact that the person is a member of the human race, and as a human being he/she deserves to live a life with dignity.

Throughout history and across different cultures, the concept of human dignity has been espoused. Generally, all cultures agree that human dignity should be preserved and protected. Thus, the Christians agree that all human beings are created by the image of God, and are thus subject to similar laws because they shared some common characteristic. This doctrine is rooted in an ancient Jewish belief, which is also shared by Islam. Something similar can be said for different cultural traditions; however, we need to be careful of equating all these religious and traditional notions of human dignity with the modern conception of human rights.

First, the full realization of human dignity in terms of religious belief is always tied to the concept of discrimination, which means that one will have more protection if one shares the same belief with the rulers or authorities. Different beliefs mean different protection mechanism. Although I cannot point to specific verses, whether in the Bible, Koran, or Torah, history can speak for this. Whenever a population with a certain religious belief finds itself under a ruler with another religion, the population is likely to be subjected to many discriminatory treatments, or treated as non-citizens. This is what happened to the Moslem people in the Iberian Peninsula during the re-conquest of the peninsula by the Spanish, in the 14th to 15th century – they were forced to change their religion or face punishment and discrimination. This is also what happened to Orthodox Christians population in Asia Minor and Constantinople when that region fell to the hands of the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century (although, most historians in general agree that the Moslems at that time treated people from different religions better than their Christian counterparts). Therefore, even though religions recognize some universal values of human dignity that needs to be protected, history has shown that in terms of practical implementation, religions (or religious rulers) treat people differently on the basis of their religion, which stand in complete opposition to the modern concept of human rights.

Second, the traditional, cultural concept of human dignity is usually attached to a series of obligations that individuals need to fulfill before their dignity is recognized. Human dignity is something that has to be earned, rather than acquire automatically simply by becoming a member of the human race. Mutua explains that this is how many traditional African communities view dignity.[1] Of course, this attachment of rights to duties is not a specifically African idea. Confucianism also maintains the primacy of obligations and duties over rights, maintaining that one has certain duties toward society in accordance to one’s position. The modern conception of human rights, on the other hand, recognizes only the duty of the states in protecting the human dignity of individuals, and this protection should be given without any condition attached to everyone.

Therefore, it is clear that traditional concepts of human dignity cannot be equated with the modern conception of human dignity, which are human rights. Human rights are given without having to acquire membership in a particular economic, social or political group, and it is also given without having to fulfill certain obligations and duties. It is given simply because of the fact that the beneficiary is a human being. This conception of automatic entitlement is what sets it apart.

Are Human Rights from the West?

admit all

Having recognized the difference between the traditional and the modern conception of human dignity, let us turn our attention to the question of origin. How did human rights come about?

It is not possible to answer the question on this short article. Human rights have a very long history before it was finally crystallized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent treaties and covenants. One can point to many different ideas, such as the idea of natural rights which is rooted in ancient Greek Philosophy, and further propounded by Christianity. The American Declaration of Independence and the Declaration on the Rights of Men and the Citizens from the French Revolution also mentions about the “Rights of Man”, although in a relatively limited way as compared to our modern understanding of human rights. There were also various suffrage movements, such as the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th century onwards, the fight against slavery, and also the Labor movements. Before these suffrage movements, certain rights could only be enjoyed by the elites, such as the rights to vote or to be elected to public offices. These suffrage movements, however, expanded the subjects of the rights recipients or the beneficiaries, giving, for example, women the right to vote, workers the right to form unions, and everyone regardless of their skin colors to be free from bondage and slavery.

All those developments contribute to the development of human rights ideas as we understand it today. However, it is relevant to the current topic being discussed to note that all these things happened in the Western cultural context. In other words: the ideology of human rights as we know it today began in the West.

Should Human Rights be Universal?

These things then beg the question: are human rights universal? If they came from the West, should other cultures implement human rights ideas in their respective societies?

The way I see it, rather than addressing the first question directly, it is better to re-frame it into another question: should human rights be universal? By re-framing the question, we shift the discussion from the question of origin to a question of merits, and that for me is more useful and practical rather than discussing about origins. After all, the question of origin has pretty much been settled. Also, the question of merits will very much relate to the next question on implementation.

When we talk about the merits of human rights, it should involve at least two things. The first one is whether human rights are useful in the protection of human dignity in a modern context. The second one is the relationship between human rights and non-western cultural contexts.

First, about the usefulness of human rights in a modern context, I would say that human rights are useful in the context of how modern nation states are formed. This is especially true when we see that most modern nation-states do not necessarily consist of just ‘one nation’, or ‘one religion’, or even ‘one culture’. In reality, especially those states that have emerged from centuries of colonialism, their borders were defined by colonial powers and these borders do not conform to the older established borders of ethnic groups and tribes. This has forced various people of different ethnicity, cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs to live together next to each other. In these countries, the principle of non-discrimination on the protection of human dignity is supremely important to bring people together into one state. This principle is what differentiates human rights from other conceptions of human dignity. In this context, I would say that human rights are very useful because they provide the principle of non-discrimination.

Human rights are also useful in the context of the relations between individuals and modern nation states, especially because they center on the well-being of the individual and limit the power of the state. This limitation of state power is supremely important, especially in modern era when the exercise of state power can be very abusive towards individuals. The older and more traditional forms of political community, before the modern-nation state, recognized older forms of protection of human dignity. However, due to the modern form of the multicultural nation state, the older human dignity concepts have became obsolete, thus making modern nation-state to be potentially very abusive. Thus, the protection given by the recognition of human rights becomes a very important limitation to the power of the state. It recognizes only the obligation on the part of the state to provide for the protection, while the individuals are not required to do anything to enjoy their human rights.

Having established that, we should proceed to examine the relations between human rights and non-western cultures. Some people say that the relation is destructive. Human rights have the potential to threaten and dismantle non-western culture, because of the incompatibility of values between human rights norms and some of the traditional values of non-western societies. This argument was particularly advanced by proponents of Asian values. This is what Jack Donelly tries to explain in his article “Human Rights and Asian Values: A Defense of ‘Western’ Universalism”:

Traditional Chinese society was dominated by the pursuit of harmony (he) at all levels, from the cosmic to the personal. The path to harmony was li. Although often translated as “propriety”, that term, in contemporary American English at least, is far too weak to encompass li's force, range, or depth. Li prescribes a complex set of interlocking, hierarchical social roles and relations centered on filial piety (xiao) and loyalty (zhong). Deference and mutual accommodation were the ideal. Personal ethic emphasizes self-cultivation in the pursuit of ren (humanness), achieved by self mastery under the guidance of li.

This system of values and social relations is incompatible with the vision of equal and autonomous individuals that underlies international human rights norms. In fact, the “western” emphasis on individual rights is likely to seem little short of moral inversion. Asian critics of demands for “western” (internationally recognized) human rights argue that they have developed alternative political ideals and practices that aim to preserve traditional values of family, community, decorum and devotion to duty.[2]

In the quoted paragraph above, critics from the Asian Values perspective view human rights as a “little short of moral inversion”, this means that human rights threaten the moral foundation of the Asian communities. Implicit on that statement is the rejection of human rights as a value to be implemented in Asian societies because of its incompatibility with the traditional values of Asian people.

However, Amartya Sen writes that the “Asian values” that some people are championing are very much contestable. Drawing from the writings and practices of various Asian philosophers and kings from different cultural and religious backgrounds, he finds that “many of these historical leaders in Asia, not only emphasized the importance of freedom and tolerance; they also had clear theories as to why this was the appropriate thing to do”.[3] He goes on to ask as to why the current leaders of Asia choose to represent Asian values as emphasizing more on the need for harmony and order, rather than describing Asian values as emphasizing on freedom and tolerance. Why choose some values over the others, sidelining values which may have some parallels and similarities with the modern conception of human rights? The answer is that “Asian values” are used by some governments to justify their own authoritarianism; that it is less a defense of traditionalism and culture than a defense of a political system.

I think, rather than viewing the relations between human rights and cultures as something that is destructive, we can actually view human rights as protecting cultures. The implementation of human rights protection empowers the people to define their own culture as they see fit, rather than something that is defined from above, by the rulers. The proposition of Asian values by some Asian governments, on the other hand, can be seen as an attempt by regimes to set a standard of behavior that is in accordance to their interest. These elites tried to freeze culture by defining it according to their own liking. I think it is this freezing of culture that threatens culture, rather than the implementation of human rights norms. By saying that a certain culture has a certain characteristic which is fixed and immutable, these rulers and elites are denying the rights of the people in that culture to transform their culture into another form that they want. By giving the people human rights, the right to transform the culture – or the right of self-determination – is protected and cannot be intruded by the state, or by the interest of the regime. Jack Donelly says, “Human rights also empower people to modify or reject parts of their traditional culture”. This right to modify and transform culture should be respected and not to be constrained by the interest of the elites.

Therefore, I propose that human rights should be treated as a universal value. First, because it has at least two merits that will be very important in a modern society: the principle of non-discrimination and the ability to limit the power of the state over individuals; and second, because it does not contradict any culture. If anything, human rights actually protect culture by giving the people the choice to transform and develop their own cultures.

[1]    Makau Mutua, the Banjul Charter and the African Cultural Fingerprint: An Evolution of the Language of Duties, an article in Virginia Journal of International Law, 35 Va. J. Int'l 339, p. 3-6

[2]    Jack Donelly,  Human Rights and Asian Values: A Defense of “Western” Universalism, p. 79-80

[3]    Amartya Sen, Human Rights and Asian Values, p. 24

Dipo Djungdjungan Summa is an Indonesian scholar currently based in the Philippines where he is working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).