Happy new year everyone. Here's a present.
Refuting West-Centric Narratives of Human Rights: A Three-Pronged Critique
Ai Chaobang, Tokyo, 4 December 2012
Ai Chaobang, Tokyo, 4 December 2012
1) Narratives of ESSENCE: the Universal Origins of Human Rights
a) The "Right" Human Rights – Who Decides?
b) Contributions to Human Rights
c) Contributions Against Human Rights
d) Strengths and Weaknesses
2) Narratives of FORM: the Universal Establishment of Human Rights
a) The Western Declaration of Human Rights?
b) The Universal-Except-The-West Declaration of Human Rights?
c) Resonance and Dissonance
3) Narratives of RELEVANCE: the Universal Enemies of Human Rights
a) Charybdis: The Whirlpool of Universal Human Wrongs
b) Scylla: The Multi-headed Monster of Inhuman Diversity
c) Through the Straits and Around the World: A Tool for Global Problems
Conclusion: In It Together
Human rights are many things simultaneously. What looks at first a simple concept is loaded with highly contextualized theoretical, political, and normative agendas, beliefs, aspirations, dreams and passions. In the wider story of humanity, human rights have their own story which as any story, can be told from multiple perspectives.
Some have dominated unduly. In this paper I seek to comprehensively refute a set of influential narrative forces in the human rights story: those which draw its centre of gravity towards the "West".1 I will argue that such Western-centric narratives, or indeed any territorializing narratives regardless of who is at their centre, are neither an accurate nor a helpful telling of the human rights story. Rather, I will present that human rights are, and should be, universal, and in so doing will overarch and consider some of the major ongoing debates in human rights discourse.
That discourse is enormous, and the territorializing narratives in question occur throughout. We shall confront them on three levels:
1) Narratives of essence: of humanity's development of the human rights idea;
2) Narratives of form: of twentieth-century attempts to implement human rights in practice, and the modern international human rights framework of laws and norms; and
3) Narratives of relevance: of the place of human rights today in relation to diverse human cultures, histories and problems.
At each level I aim to critically assert the universality of human rights, as well as the inaccuracies or dangers posed by elevating the story's Western characters above others.
Throughout, we must bear in mind the essential problem. Thomas Paine lamented in 1776 that 'Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her as a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart.'2 He might as well have said that this morning. Every society, today and in the past, has abused human beings in ways that any meaningful concept of human rights must embody. Every society, regardless of location or culture, has had its politically, socially, economically, and/or spiritually pernicious orders, that in innumerable ways have forsaken people within them or aggressed those outside. Every society has had its descents into madness, and most display an abysmal record in facing up to those disasters with humility. Therefore, when this paper considers the human rights contributions of any given society, this should not at all be taken as an absolution of that society for whatever grievous treatment of human beings it once authored or still does now.
This is nowhere a pure academic question, but an emotively-charged core of political agendas and clashing superiority complexes. The academic community and its human rights commentators, as humans too, are not insulated from this, but are themselves affected by human rights politics and value preferences, and affect these in turn by their choices of how to regard them. We should note that disciplinary academia as we know it, now globalized across the world, is itself a constructed and politicized unit, itself of Western extraction, and itself a culturally loaded tool of legitimating – or refusing legitimation to – ideas and knowledge, according to rules not necessarily objective in direction.3 It is vital that in assessing global issues, we be actively conscious of the norms and assumptions influencing us, and look past their clout in academic politics so as not to unfairly exclude contributions.
I take the trouble to state this because in the politicized paradigm of international relations today, any human rights discussion runs the risk of having all meaning drained off into a competitive morass of ulterior agendas, where participants divert attention from their abuses by stating "no, you". As is really the overarching message in this paper, to territorialize human rights is to play straight into this contest, and turn a concept which was meant to help us escape that paradigm into a rhetorical instrument that sinks us deeper in it – and buries our efforts in shame.
Thus the argument I seek to make here is as normative as empirical. Human rights not only are universal, but should and must be. Only then can they represent not our determination to persist with self-interested conflict and mutual contempt, but a universal will to overturn that order, to get past divisions which should never have been dug, and to re-found our globalized world on a basis of sincere responsibility and mutual care: to show, indeed, that humanity can do better.
1) Narratives of Essence: the Universal Origins of Human Rights
For all the disputes about where human rights should go, there is less contention on where they come from. On their theoretical origins, storylines loaded with names of Euro-American (and typically male) philosophers are dominant. Jack Donnelly, for example, asserts without compromise that 'as a matter of historical fact, the concept of human rights is an artifact of modern Western civilization', and denies the validity of other societies' contributions as proper conceptions of rights.4 This Western narrative, for Donnelly, goes back 'at least to (John) Locke'5, while other explorers of human rights history have pointed to the natural law theories of Aquinas or Grotius, the critical utilitarianism of J.S. Mill, the social contract thinking of Hobbes or Rousseau, or the transcendental personhood of Immanuel Kant.6
It is one thing to identify all these and others as key contributors to the concept of human rights. But it is another to assert them as coherent components of an overarching Western "tradition" of rights, on whose heritage the concept as we know it today disproportionately depends. How do we assess contributions' relative validity? Let us start from there.
a) The "Right" Human Rights – Who Decides?
Fundamentally, human rights are a simple concept reached by combining two simpler ones: human and rights. The essence of "human" is a shared fundamental identity baseline with those around us: easy to observe, emotionally intuitive, and perhaps one of the first concepts most societies have been arriving at since before recorded history.7 The essence of "rights" is a value statement, of which "rights" are just one possible expression: that there are things a person should have or expect, or that it is right that this be the case. At their root-tips, these are concepts and choices too elemental to attribute to one civilization's authorship.
Conversely, the reason they become so complicated is that we speak of them in a context: that of a complex species in a complex world, where different societies have developed different ideas of what it means to be "human", and what is or is not due to us by virtue thereof – or indeed, due or not due for different categories of humans.
This is where the stories come in, and thus the different perspectives: and as the range of these is immense, we will not dwell too long on them here. Politics and prejudice have generated a long dialectic, between conceptions of universal humanity and "us-them" distinctions that exclude whole groups of people or arrange them in hierarchies; while different peoples devised their own social systems to meet – or fail to meet – the huge range of human needs for survival and decent lives, defining and prioritising these needs and life goals according to different sets of values, agendas, resources, conditions and challenges. Life values are as important as needs in this discussion, with no shortage of arguments that rights come not from needs, but the dignity and moral quality of being human.8
The operative concept there is society. Human rights are inseparable from social context: they describe relationships between humans and humans, or assert what those should be. One's right is another responsibility; rights in effect connote entitlements, or privileges, or immunities, or power relations.9 All of these involve two or more people, and express value judgements about what they should expect from one another. When we speak from a considerably more complex world of seven billion, human rights become inseparable from the vast discourses on the meaning of human nature, on human agency and capacity for choice and responsibility10, and the purposes and duties of legitimate government, these days especially the state. We must look at these themes before we come to human rights as a legal creation, which is something much more recent and – as we shall see – rather detached, on purpose, from the concept's theoretical journey.
This is why as a distinct concept, human rights are and must be difficult to define. They can be approached, legitimately, from countless directions; humanity has been violated in many ways, traumatically, in different parts of the world. So who can offer a singular objective standard, by which to assess what approaches should stand as the main traditions of or contributions to human rights theory? Who can assert that this or that image of human rights, emphasizing this or that type of right, should stand as the "correct" model worldwide? Donnelly's critique of non-Western conceptions, for example, sets apart rights – in the Western tradition – from conceptions of duties, responsibilities, a focus on any character other than the individual, and the idea of something being right; and uses this to exclude Muslim, African, Chinese, Indian and Soviet contributions from the human rights concept's authorship.11
But is it safe to accept this? We might say, for example, that a given non-Western civilization's approach emphasizes B-san's duty to A-san, rather than A-san's rights; but we could just as easily say that the Western approach stresses only A-san's rights and not B-san's responsibility, and that we cannot make sense of the former without referring to the latter, especially if the latter is a state and A-san's right to x is contingent on B-san as the party with most agency to fulfil it. Either approach misses something; but either approach offers something to the human rights discussion that can help fill in what the other misses. And either approach can and has been misused or appropriated by those who would violate human rights, as we shall see; either alone is not enough.
So again, who decides what the "right" or "real" human rights concepts are? If we are serious about human rights and wish to keep actual humans at their centre, the answer can only be the societies whose approaches have worked: which have done the most to fulfil people's rights, or to use the human rights tool to improve people's lives. Which societies might these be?
They do not exist. Indeed, of all characteristics in the human rights story, the problem that human societies still generally fail at protecting the rights of their citizens and one another's – that rights by any respectable conception are not well upheld, and are all over the place lost amidst hypocrisy, political greed, exclusionary prejudice and so on – is perhaps their most universal characteristic of all. Some societies have done better at some rights and worse at others; some have done better or worse more generally; but no society, it can be contended, can speak from a position of strength or pride. All have room to improve; all have further to go than they have yet come.
This is as true of theory, in past and in present, as it is of practice. The West, just as anywhere, has produced its share of conceptual currents diametrically destructive to any meaningful sense of human rights, some of which hold phenomenal social and political clout to this day. After a brief exploration of different societies' contributions, we must consider these anti-contributions and counter-discourses too.
b) Contributions to Human Rights
We should give the heavyweights of Western philosophy their due. Their contribution, in sum, was to advance a concept of natural law by which a certain value and capacity for good, in humans and their world, was advanced as inherent to the universe and accessible to reason; and within that order, to elevate human beings as agents of intrinsic morality, dignity, will; to represent the dignity thereof in models of good governance and individuals' relationship thereto, such as in social contract theories; and to seek to emobdy those values in instruments of political practice, most famously following the American and French revolutions.
That is a very long story, in which the roles of characters such as Cicero, Aquinas, Grotius, Locke, Kant, Mill and so on are well-established and well-debated in the discourse. We should be wary however of giving this the appearance of a grand human rights project, when in fact each of these characters was operating with diffuse goals in unique and intricate circumstances. Far from mere stages in a human rights sequence, it is doubtful that any of these persons would fully identify with the human rights concepts we speak of today; nor are any of their offerings without serious dubiousness in their own human rights validity. Such things as a grounding in religious authority, a frequent exclusion of vulnerable minorities, and the problem of just how far these theories actually reflected the societies they were produced in at all, require us to challenge Europe with the same interrogation as Donnelly unleashes on other civilizations.
However it does not disqualify them. What matters is that they contributed: that in the story of human rights, and our ongoing attempts to write it today, there is much we can take from Western theory, especially with Europe's advantages – which may in part explain its narrative power – that it tended to write things down more than much of the world; that modern academica emerged most accustomed to engaging in Western languages and styles; and that given Europe's position in colonial relationships, it was least likely to have its contributions plundered or destroyed.
We must, however, welcome contributions from other societies. Human rights imply far more than the indivudal person standing in the centre and asserting rights – and not necessarily at all against a hostile state or faceless social surroundings. Questions of responsibilities to and by states and societies, on what to do when rights or responsibilites are failed, and what it is about humans that gives us rights in the first place, are crucial parts of the human rights discussion: and on these, the conversation must be recognized as a planetary one.
In China, for example, two thousand years of Confucian tradition have much to pronounce on duties (and by extension, rights): in relationships both between humans and humans, and humans and the state, all regulated in what was ideally a harmonious order of clearly-defined obligations encompassing society, the state and its massive bureaucracy, and – as part of the same picture – the heavenly realm and its own massive bureaucracy. These relationships could be hierarchical and repressively regulated, but by placing humans in social context – their families, their friends, their officials – Confucianism brings those relationships into the discourse and exposes them to our critical scrutiny. Given Western discourse's preference for atomistic, abstracted views on humans, this is a valuable offering.12
Likewise, Confucian ethics extend to state responsibility. Unlike the Western choice of law as the main instrument to maintain this, the Confucian emphasis is on virtuous and benevolent rule which places the people first, and a trustworthy relationship between government and citizens. In accordance with the "mandate of heaven"13, the emperor's rule as the Son of Heaven was divinely ordained; but that in the event this rule became despotic, unjust, and counter to the well-being of the people, then rebellion and overthrow became not only a right under this system, but an inevitability, typically heralded by divine signs of natural disasters, economic hardship and banditry. If the rebellion succeeded, that was proof enough that the mandate of heaven had been withdrawn from the fallen regime.14
Though distinct from Western approaches, there is important commentary here about the responsibility of government to its people's welfare. A basis in sincere virtue and harmonious state-citizen relationships is a welcome counterpoint to the Western discourse, which too often takes the lack thereof as a starting point and emphasizes demanding rights back from the state through laws – and acknowledging that this is not enough extends human rights' pragmatic versatility. Moreover, this Chinese tradition make claims to inherency in the natural order of the universe with spiritual authority behind it, much as European natural law theories do; and provides for the right of populations to rise against their leaders should the latter fail in their duties, in comparable manner to Locke.15 Given that the place of the state in regards to human rights is a vital theme of the discourse today, the Chinese of eras long before states were even invented have meaningful things to contribute.
Muslim societies, so visible in their human rights problems today, may likewise have worthier offerings on their records. Abdul Aziz Said explores Islamic theoretical traditions from a human rights perspective, and cites Quranic references for human dignity, universal humankind, the protection of minorities, freedom of conscience, justice, the obligation to help those in need16, protection for property and privacy, education, and responsibility to future generations.17 The point is not, of course, that Muslim countries therefore live up to these standards; typically they do not, while the theories have glaring problems as any do. The point is that theories like these are no less valid as contributions to the discourse, especially in raising themes which Western approaches may grant inadequate attention.18
From an African perspective, Josiah Cobbah offers a critique of the 'Lockeian abstraction of natural rights',19 arguing that we need instead a conception of humans in society so as to deal with ourselves in real terms. Cobbah's narrative of African values presents them as communitarian; living in extended rather than nuclear families, with no concept of the latter; owning land communally, not privately; emphasizing groupness, cooperation and collective responsibility, not survival of the fittest; and rights and duties as the basis of interdependent, reciprocal kinship relations.20 Though not without its own pitfalls in theory and in practice, there are again valuable counterweights here to Western rights theories, particularly to their loadings from individualist, competitive and materialistic norms.21
To Asian examples, Amartya Sen adds the fondness for open deliberation of the Indian classics; the theme of freedom in Buddhism; the universalism, egalitarianism and tolerance of Ashoka's search for his own redemption; and the promotion of religious diversity by the Mughal emperor Akbar, whose polity was 'infinitely more liberal and tolerant in religion than any medieval or contemporary European kingdom or empire'.22 Matthew Weinberg argues for the prominent essence of Human Rights in the Baha'i teachings, especially on universalism, the substance of rights, and the balance between individual freedom and public good.23 The Hawaiian kingdom's Law of the Splintered Paddle, preceding American annexation, became a benchmark for laws on the rights of noncombatants, and is enshrined in the Hawaii state constitution to this day as obliging the state in protection of public safety.24 Wherever in the world we look, we may expect to find worthy contributions.
Thus we go too far if we state, as Michael Freeman and others do, that modern Human Rights theory began in Europe25, or if we take Donnelly's approach of excluding contribtuions like those above from our human rights heritage. Why ought these be seen as less legitimate than European perspectives in their supply of materials to build human rights theory? All offer welcome ingredients for a balanced view on human nature and human needs, which are too complex for a one-directional theoretical approach; and all likewise offer foundations from which great harms can be inflicted on humans, which a broader and more diverse human rights discourse can offer balancing weights to prevent.
It is a valid concern that diluting what we mean by human rights can be a gift to repressive regimes, especially via cultural relativism.26 However, we would deceive ourselves to suggest that the Western approach, if considered more valid and rigorous, has been impressive either in fulfilling the rights of people in Western countries, or applying a standard by which those countries have shown regard for the rights of those outside. The global human rights discourse will not proceed unless we recognize the bankruptcies all our civilizations have displayed therein, as we now shall consider.
c) Contributions Against Human Rights
'Values that the European enlightenment and other relatively recent developments have made widespread,' writes Amartya Sen, 'cannot really be seen as part of the Western heritage as it was experienced over millennia.'27 In theory and in practice, the Western record on human rights has been as parlous as its contributions have been great. Just as Donnelly critiques the limitations of non-Western conceptions,28 so too must Western ones receive similar scrutiny.
The place of spirituality is concerning. Just as rights from an Islamic perspective ultimately derive from Allah rather than humans intrinsically29, and likewise divinity is the source of authority in the Chinese "mandate of heaven", the same has been true throughout Western human rights traditions. Almost all of the aforementioned Western philosophers were Christians, with the Christian god as foundation and keystone in holding their theories together, and without which all collapses in a heap. This includes the theories of Locke, for whom 'all Men being the workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker…are his Property, whose Workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one anothers Pleasure.'30
Given that human rights must by definition be human, this is a problem. To base rights on a value choice that humans merit them by being human no longer stands – or at least, no longer stands universally – if that value depends on a higher authority, which alone confers human worth but is only legitimate to some humans in some places. Rights in this image no longer belong to humans in the final instance, but to their divine superiors: and this opens a door through which to expel anyone who does not recognize that god's authority from those rights' remit, or who is disfavoured by religious politics, thus compromising them as human rights.
This danger is real and serious. Throughout the human story religion has been as much destroyer of human rights as constructor.31 Western Christendom has yet to come to terms with its traditions of – among other things – violent crusades, inquisitions, persecutions and callous punishments, a veritable moral shipwreck on human sexuality, keynote contributions to humanity's gender disaster32, the establishment of obedience as a virtue and ethical foundation, a major role in the physical and cultural genocide of the Americas as well as in colonialism more widely, and the bloodthirsty seventeenth-century wars in Europe which drove the West to invent a certain concept, sovereignty, precisely in hope that this would protect everyone from the rampage of unrestrained religious claims to other people's loyalites.33,34 Many of these abuses against humanity, or their legacies, remain serious human rights problems today, both in Western societies and societies to which, typically through colonialism, the West exported these attitudes.
Does this invalidate the contributions of Locke and company? Of course not. It does however expose a glaring rift between human rights as classical Western theorists would have understood the term, and human rights as a concept we work on today. This is all the more so when globalization has forced our gods to share the divine realm, and to recognize no one of them will ever hold a monopoly on humanity's loyaltes. Such is equally a problem for the Western tradition as it is for, say, the Muslim or Chinese traditions.
Staying with Locke, the emphasis is very much on civil or political rights – life, liberty, property, and the contract with the state35 – and less, say, on social health, economic opportunity, or protection from hardships of non-human sources. And when it comes to the rights of vulnerable minorities, another of Locke's writings, the Letter Concerning Toleration, makes it quite clear how much tolerance – that is, none – he believes should be shown to Catholics, Muslims or atheists.36
We could interrogate any of the Western theorists in this way, and identify these themes as recurring problems. This surpasses theory: in present-day human rights discourse and practice, prejudice and the persecution of minorized groups remains one of the gravest drivers of human violence and suffering, and have struggled for recognition on the international human rights policy agenda. Many of these crises and discriminations – among them the gender problem37, religious intolerance and hostility to sexual diversity – were so entrenched in Western civilizations over the centuries as to become all but taken for granted. To this day the essence of the gender problem still challenges international society to grasp it, while persecution of sexual minorities required until the 1990s to fight its way onto the human rights discourse, and until 2011 to attain explicit mention in a UN resolution.38
Another prejudice recurring through Western theory and practice is racism. On this little needs be added: the exclusion of non-Westerners from the luxuries of rights and liberties in the theories,39 was reflected in over half a millennium of the systematic ransacking of civilizations in Africa, Asia and the Americas, reaching consummation in pseudo-scientific theories of racial hierarchy and the two twentieth-century cataclysms in which their genocidal conclusions descended on Europe itself. On this, and the legacies by which accelerating globalization thereafter was much steered in Western images and interests, the record and critical reaction speaks for itself.
Marginalizing people is not a trivial issue here. The more an approach to human rights excludes people, the less they are human rights. Indeed, to exclude is to risk disposing of any meaning or value in the concept at all, if it only protects those who already have the dominant social power or legitimacy as to not need it in the first place; if, one might say, might makes rights. To what extent are human rights human, if not all humans are entitled to their protection? To what extent are they rights, if they begin and end only as dictated by the fashionable prejudices of the day?
All of these are recognized problems with Western narratives in the global human rights discourse. Whether in theoretical integrity or practical hypocrisy, they make attempts to ground the concept in Western origins both divisive and dubious. But a couple of further themes warrant special consideration.
There are Western theoretical traditions of huge and abiding influence, that contradict the outstanding Western human rights heritage. Some are relatively innocuous, like the classical utilitarianism which John Stuart Mill reinterpreted critically, and whose founder, Jeremy Bentham, famously described any natural conception of rights as 'nonsense on stilts'.40 Others, such as the mainstreaming of Biblical original sin into political significance in Augustine's City of God, are of more questionable ethical fibre. But if one contribution demands critical scrutiny just for the sheer clout it has exerted on Western socio-political theory and practice, it is Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan.
Leviathan sets out an abstraction of humans in a 'state of nature' in which the overriding motive is a fear of violent death and desire to avoid it, in a zero-sum war of all against all in which the rights of one – that is, unfettered licence – necessitate destroying the rights of others. To escape this nightmare, Hobbes advances that humans surrender that licence to a constructed sovereign, whose absolute power and control of humans by fear and force is their only preservation from that violent state of nature, and the only meaning of freedom we can attain.41
One is challenged on where to begin here. Here we have the creation of an intellectual heritage the West not only produced, but celebrated as a keystone contributor to political thought and science, permitted to occupy enormous power in its political, social and academic mainstreams, and to this day grants colossal resonance in the worldviews of policymakers, scholars and people generally. Simultaneously, a more perfectly opposite theory to any meaningful essence of human rights and dignity cannot be conceived. It builds from a self-admittedly nasty and brutish image of human nature that is neither historically demonstrable nor hypothetically logical, ignoring vast, complex swathes of what it means to be human apparent in any person's experience; and the social contract created to escape this is as insubstantial as the nightmare itself, for "freedom" is no more than unquestioning obedience to the sovereign as the only escape from that violent "nature", while the sovereign itself remains in that "nature" with nothing to check or oblige its power.42
We should recall that human rights depends as a concept on social frames of reference – that is, on meaningful relationships between people willing to fulfil responsibilities to one another. Anything based on this model makes that impossible. The commonwealth of the Leviathan is one in which society is itself meaningless: there is no society, only selfish and frightened individuals who might as well be ghouls decayed in heart and mind, artificially bound in a constructed multitude beneath the sovereign's iron fist. That such an order might ever gain universal legitimacy, for a species capable of beliving in concepts like human rights at all – and striving for them – is as preposterous as it is sordid to hope for; and even if it did, then even in its most stable iterations, the best possible constructs of human rights would remain impoverished, insubstantial, and fragile as dust in the wind.
Rights that exist only so far as they are imposed by force, are not rights.They become as transient as the power that coerces them onto us, and when that power dissolves, as it must, so do those rights. Real rights require better, and humanity deserves and is capable of better.43 Rights and Leviathans cannot coexist.
This is one of the forces that has shaped Western approaches to human rights problematically. Individual liberty, as an enemy of material cooperation; inexorable competition and conflict between individual and indivudal, individual and state, and state and state, rather than harmonious interdependence; the obedience-based approaches of legal positivism, and lack of space for the minorized, dissenting or different; these holes have been frequently shown up by alternative perspectives on human rights, and remain sources of imbalance which leave many people behind to this day.
A final mention should go to the academic establishment of modern times, which has been no exception when it comes to theoretical currents countervailing human rights. Two disciplines in particular gave no place for their consideration until forced open late by criticism: Economics and International Relations, which in the twentieth century were compromised by hyper-positivist dogmas and ideologies, essentializing and reductionist models of the human person, and tremendous policy clout which contributed to some of the worst human rights catastrophes of our era.44 These disciplines and their ideological foundations, need it be said, were of total Western extraction.
The purpose of this exercise is not to demonize the West. Other civilizations' rights perspectives contain no less compromising counter-currents and crippling hypocrisies. Some are the same as Western theories' problems, such as prejudicial exclusions, or foundations in religious principles of questionable ethicality. Others grow much more from their own circumstances, like Chinese Legalism,45 the rigid hierarchies of Confucianism, or the special vulnerability of Islamic theory, as one of the most strictly monotheistic of all worldviews, to become dogmatically and coercivelly monolithic. Just as non-Western perspectives may show up faults in Western contributions and offer suggestions to overcome those faults, those perspectives from outside the West run just the same risk of imbalance, especially if community is so emphasized that the individual human being is reduced to the status of a microbe, crushed at the bottom of hierarchies and anguished by the pressures of soul-destroying conformity. And in the politics of human rights disputes today, violations can be buried beneath carpets of rhetoric in which either given conception is thus disguised, amidst nationalist or civilizational chauvinism or political calculation, as the only legitimate interpretation of human rights. The "cultural relativism" debate, to which this paper comes later, is a case in point.
In sum, powerful theoretical forces hostile to notions of human rights are established everywhere, built upon interests and values problematic in every civilization. From hierarchies to segregations, impunities for the strong to contempt for the weak, the extents and forms of these differ, but none of our societies, nor our human rights theories or practices, are free from them.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The bottom line is that we cannot, in discussing human rights concepts, reduce them to an image that emphasizes the things our preferred civilization contributed to them, then argue that this alone is the essence of human rights and thus claim authorship for that civilization. To favour one and discount all others, as Donnelly does with discounting duties and elevating individualist perspectives, boils down to "human rights are Western because only Western conceptions are human rights". At best this is semantically arbitrary: for any civilization could argue this, and no objective standard exists because all have huge problems. At worst it is less theoretical and more political.
Theory and politics: the two are never far apart, and we should not forget this when we note that to this day, the theory remains unsettled. What gives us rights? How do we identify what they are, and how universally do they apply? Freeman unleashes a catalogue of names – Laclau, Mouffe, Dworkin, Rorty, MacIntyre, Donnelly, Gewirth, Raz – all contemporary Western commentators with different answers to the many dimensions of these questions.46 Even today, even only in the West, even among committed and honourable participants in the discourse embracing the need to think eclectically47, the theory is still in contention: there is no singular "project" of human rights theory any more than there was in the past, but rather a diverse debate of perspectives which, though all have their strengths and their weaknesses, all have something to contribute.
Within these circles, can we objectively ask which of these theories is most faithful to what human rights "are" as a concept? Surely that would be as arbitrary as it would be disrespectful to the sincere motives of those others. Their contributions should be valued in human rights theory not because they come from Westerners, nor indeed from eminent academics, but because of what they are: contributions, to a theoretical field whose problems still outnumber its solutions. We should value non-Western contributions by the same standard: and that they may come in different conceptual language, or emphasize different things, or grow from the context of different challenges, should be seen as an opportunity to learn and not an excuse to exclude.
So to summarize on human rights' universality of essence, no theory is without critiques or caveats. All have either attributes or omissions that can be questioned in full fairness. And however wide we cast our net of history in search of human rights' theoretical roots, this remains true of contributions, wilful or unwitting, from whatever society or civilization we choose to draw on. None may stand as "the" origin of human rights, because each abandons or overlooks at least some humans in every society, and have yet to reach all humanity. We might say that human rights are universal simply because none of us have fulfilled them yet – we are universally still on the journey.
To get the most out of human rights, we need that full diversity of contributons. Too often these flaws and abandonments are grievous, and the societies responsible, swollen on arrogance, pride and national ego, will not admit the problem. It becomes easier to admit if in studying other societies' perspectives, one learns of ways they address similar problems with greater effect themselves. So to the end of de-politicizing rights, and shaping rights as a tool to get us out of our humiliation of a modern international order, let us gesture no longer to the eternal dead end that is "which is the right theoretical approach to rights?", and try instead to improve all approaches by learning from the strengths and weaknesses of others'.
2) Narratives of Form: the Universal Establishment of Human Rights
We come now to the international human rights framework, which grew more from pragmatic necessity than theoretical consensus. After the atrocities of World War II, human rights were established in international law in the 1945 Charter of the United Nations, which specified them as 'fundamental' along with the 'dignity and worth of the human person' without discrimination.48 The United Nations (UN) was to become the principal forum and mechanism for global-level efforts to protect human rights.
But this was not the original plan. The Charter did not elaborate on these terms49: that fell to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which after painstaking negotiatons was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Though non-biding, the UDHR became a fundamental constitutive document of the UN, a global norm-setter of the strongest order, and the foundation for a subsequent series of human rights treaties and instruments that expand to this day.50
Here we can continue to critically assess portrayals of human rights as "Western". While the first section of this paper looked at conceptual origins, here we focus on the institutionalization of human rights in the norms and laws of our globalized era, and how those practices grew. It is a complex tale with a starkly international cast of characters.
a) The Western Declaration of Human Rights?
The UDHR, and the UN itself, were reactions to events in which humanity had succumbed, deeper than ever in its history, to comprehensive bloodlust – and needed to be reminded, urgently, that a future better than the past was not only possible, but obligatory. The UDHR's purpose was not to settle the theoretical arguments about human rights concepts or arbitrate who was right or wrong, but to hammer in place something workable and legitimate to everyone, however imperfect, to steer us away from the 'disregard and contempt' that had spawned those 'barbarous acts which...outraged the conscience of mankind'51 – and to do so in the traumatic immediacy of those barbarous shadows.
The problem was that the global order which generated those horrors – that of self-seeking, competitive sovereign states – was still in place, and would remain so for the decades to come. International human rights efforts, to this day, are challenged to make their concept meaningful in a world where disregard and contempt for it by human power structures are still considered all too legitimate.
Behind the disputes about the UDHR across two thirds of a century since its creation, this dynamic of self-serving interest or value agendas ever lurks. Some who critique or defend the UDHR alike are violators, in service of such interests or values and wielding human rights as a political tool. Others are more sincere in their grievances. Honourable or not, a common theme of these reactions is that the UDHR is a Western document, promoting a human rights model representing Western interests, cultures, values and social experiences at the expense of those in other parts of the world.52 We will explore some of these perspectives in due course; but to look at the drafting of the UDHR itself is to see deliberations as interest-driven as they come, and in which conversely, it was non-Western states who argued most vehemently for a better, stronger UDHR, and the old powers of the West who rallied against it.
From the beginning, human rights were not the Western powers' priority. In 1945, the helmsmen of the US, UK and USSR – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin – and their delegates formulated the UN's purpose and framework at Dumbarton Oaks: that is, as a postwar collective security arrangement whereby sovereignty preserved their power and prestige. Human rights got scarcely a mention in the draft Charter.53 It was non-Western countries, particularly China at this stage, who coalesced the idea of human rights instruments as fundamental to the UN's purpose; and 'once (this) got loose,' argues Susan Waltz, '(the Great Powers') concern was to manage the process and ensure at least that the results did not run counter to their interests.'54 American 'coolness', and 'outright hostility' by the British, Russians and French, caved only as Europe's concentration camps were liberated, and photographs from within made quite clear the inadequacy of the Western security discourse to convey the pinnacles of evil the world order had produced, let alone to resolve them. All this is not a stirring picture of human rights authorship from the civilizations of Locke, the Declaration of Independence and the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen.
The famed story in this regard is Eleanor Roosevelt's, and of how the human rights aspect of the UN's founding negotiations was passed her way on account of her being the only woman in the US delegation, and thus seen, in accordance with gendered prejudice, as the best candidate for a soft, marginal concern of secondary importance at best. The delegation did not bank on her thrusting the human rights cause into the centre of the UN's foundational agenda and becoming nigh legendary as a leading character in the UDHR story.
The tale is compelling because it piles layer after layer of cold water upon Western-centric narratives. In the first instance, Ms. Roosevelt's contributions were not so much in the substance of the human rights framework, but in the politics of giving it a clean birth at all. Her foremost battles were against her own country: US delegation members, the state department, and public opinion, swathes of which opposed the international human rights project to their marrows.55 That Western countries like the US should have disdained this project at all, in the wake of a human rights cataclysm in which all participants were perpetrators, challenges the human conscience. And where commitment did come forth, so too in the Roosevelt story do we see some shades of Western human rights approaches' traditional blind spots: hypocrisy coloured by racism-laden scorn for the non-Western world, and gendered prejudices, in the light of which the rights they favoured were clearly not for everyone.
US apathy was borne out in barely five years, by when that country went into reverse over all its rights commitments. Instead it embraced a bipolar Cold War narrative which extended the state-centric order, and still reserved dignity for competing national Leviathans to the detriment of their human subjects.56 The other Western pillars, France and the UK, similarly feared the UDHR's implications for their colonial empires, and pushed for weak and vague wording. The prevailing tide of leading Western nations' behaviour, from any angle, suggests that rather than being a product of the Western mind and hand, the UDHR was established despite the West, not because of it.
b) The Universal-Except-The-West Declaration of Human Rights?
From the opposite perspective, non-Western states were not mere contributors or bystanders to the UDHR's creation, but decisive main characters. A few examples suggest both the range and depth of their roles.
One of the foremost was China's. As early as Dumbarton Oaks, Chinese delegates argued for the enforcement of justice in the world as a central UN purpose, and were prepared 'to cede as much...sovereign power as may be required' to that end.57 Though the Western powers did not take China seriously at this point, the Chinese presence gained considerable clout in the form of Peng Chun Chang (Zhang Pengchun), vice-chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission and a polymath of the arts as much as a diplomat. To Chang has been attributed not only decisive vision for the Declaration's structure,58 but a consistent role in its substance and mediation of disputes, often with profound philosophical or cultural references. Versed in both Western and Chinese philosophy, Chang was adamant that the UDHR could not be merely a reflection of the former if it was to live up to universalist ambitions.
The starkness of China's role is its contrast to the present. China in the twenty-first century is one of the most villainized characters in the human rights story, foremost in swatting away rights discussions in the name of "Asian values", and the very Western values of sovereignty and non-intervention whether in its own violations or other countries'.59 But its context in the late 1940s was different. China then was at low tide, emerging from one hundred years of colonial humiliation and pillage by the West, internal rebellion, warlordism and civil strife, and a harrowing conflict with the Japanese. When its delegates spoke of ceding as much sovereign power as needed, they really had little to speak of: borne out by four more years of civil war, during the UDHR negotiations, that brought the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949.
Viewed cynically, did China bring universal human rights to the table only because its circumstances – having endured decades of some of the worst atrocities of a millennium – gave it every reason to? Or can we believe the sincerity apparent in Mr. Chang reflected more widely on a Chinese decision, to purposefully choose an international human rights approach to these problems, rather than a sovereignty, security and non-intervention one as the Western powers would have preferred, and the Chinese themselves have since? Either way, the UDHR owed much to Chinese authorship.
Another non-Western set of contributors was Latin America, whose part Mary Glendon finds so significant as to call those peoples 'the forgotten crucible of the universal human rights idea.'60 Latin American and Caribbean nations had pushed for international human rights measures since before the war61; drew on a unique rights discourse grown from experiences of slavery, Spanish conquest and US subjection, theology and Pan-Americanism, and thus both meshed political rights to socio-economic ones and correlated both to duties; advanced this in the UDHR negotiations to broaden their appeal to the range of the UN's cultures and philosophies; and late in the day, thanks to Dominican Republic delegate Minerva Bernardino, secured the phrasing in the Preamble that specified the UDHR's rights as women's and not just men's. Other key articles or aspects thereof were also Latin American initiatives: Ecuador on exile in Article 9, Mexico on remedies for violations in Article 8. In placing human rights on the UN agenda, shaping the Human Rights Commission, and universalizing the UDHR, Glendon concludes, Latin American efforts were instrumental. And need it be added, few parts of the world would suffer so viscerally in another half-century of US military interventions, CIA machinations and merciless US-backed dictatorships, suppressed in a Cold War narrative that, at least in the West, still overlooks Latin American human rights agonies in a bipolar story of good versus evil.
Further examples could include the relentless scrutinizing eyes of Lebanese rappoteaur and Chair of the General Assembly Third Committee, Charles Malik; the Philippines' opposition to a provision on cultural and customary differences in Article 5 on torture, on the grounds that the Nazis might have defended their practices on just those grounds; the broad support for socio-economic rights, in which Latin America was joined even by Saudi Arabia, citing again the Muslim principle of zakat; and the vehemence of delegates from India and Pakistan on the rights of women. And almost everyone, except the Western powers and the soon-to-be-infamous regime in South Africa, exerted united pressure on freedom from colonial rule and racial discrimination, which in the 1940s was perhaps the most wide-reaching barrier to the universality of human rights in practice.62 Once more, in the light both of holes in the Western human rights tradition, and today's non-Western rights violations and arguments raised to defend them, the UDHR story is ironic indeed.
The overall picture is one in which non-Western countries, on the whole, strongly supported the international human rights project and committed their utmost efforts to bring it to fruition. As with China, there are different ways to assess their reasons. Certainly colonially-traumatized experiences gave non-Western countries plenty of motives for introducing concern for basic humanity in the international system. A more cynical view might focus on what nationalist or political elite agendas could take from such mechanisms for their soon-to-burgeon indpendence struggles; certainly the rights discourse's resonance went on to hurt British and French ethical integrity in decolonization flashpoints like Suez, Kenya, Vietnam and Algeria. But for non-Western countries, the UN system and UDHR was their reaction not just to World War II, as it was for the West, but to abuses and atrocities stretching back centuries further; and with these having returned to bring low Europe itself, these countries found the best conditions yet to push their case that all that should end.
This conflicted with European and US visions for the UN, and so too did non-Western countries contest many aspects of the UDHR between themselves. What the UDHR was not, therefore, was a document arranged by those representing the values and interests of any one part of the world, imposed upon the rest of it. Rather it was a composite of contributions and contests global in scope, negotiated between a huge range of people and peoples on about as equal footing as in any major international negotiation before or since. So equal, because the problems it was meant to solve, and the ills of the human capacity they had made manifest, had shamed and outraged the world at the level of basic humanity, beyond distinctions of culture or values. Through universal human rights, the world came together to signal a universal desire to reject that violent logic.
This, again, is not to efface Western roles. Just as we cannot discount non-Western contributions, nor can we squarely hand them credit for inventing the international human rights framework. That would be to ignore the real contributions of Western peoples and states as much as to forget that not all non-Western parties were so constructive. Saudi Arabia, for example, abstained from the vote adopting the UDHR, opposing Article 16 on equal marriage rights for men and women and Article 18 on freedom to change religion, reflecting repressive practices that continue to this day. Despite its claims to Islamic principles, all other Muslim countries in the General Assembly voted in favour of the UDHR.
Some of these, and others, would go on to find reservations about the document they helped create. We come now to the Declaration's legacy. What is plain however is that this founding stone of international human rights practice was a complex story, on which different angles and narratives bring out a long cast of heroes and villains from all over the world. In today's disputes about the "Western-ness" of human rights, the supreme universalism of that choice, to make them matter in international politics, is too easily forgotten. It stands to question whether the UDHR would be far less universal, or even exist at all, if not for the authorship of some of the peoples whose states are most hostile to human rights today.
c) Resonance and Dissonance
The UDHR was neither legally binding nor effective in its purpose, by itself; nor was it expected to be. What it provided was a normative beacon, and a bedrock for international society to build a core human rights agenda. As the norms strengthened, so too did laws and institutions blossom into an ever-expanding human rights framework. How did Western societies, and the rest of the world, figure into this development?
This chapter of the story is a number-and-alphabet soup of UN resolution codes and international treaty acronyms. In the 1960s, two UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolutions authorised investigation and mechanisms for dealing with situations of gross human rights violations. These specifically targeted what was to become the era's great bogeyman of human rights, around and against which many of the early instruments were formed: Apartheid in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia.63 The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1965 exemplified this, in the context of many new states emerging from colonial rule to sit at UN tables, and was one of the first of a string of treaties seeking either to improve the UN's institutional capacity on human rights, or to develop particular rights' or groups' protections. Among others these included CEDAW64 in 1979, on women; CAT65 on torture and cruel punishments, in 1989; CRC66 on the rights of the child, in 1989; and recently, ICCPED67 and CRPD68 on forced disappearances and people with disabilities, respectively, in 2006. As for institutions, recent movment has included the creation of a High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993; the rising profile of the Secretariat on human rights, upon the enthusiasm and initiative of the not-especially-Western former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan; and the replacement of the Commission on Human Rights with a Human Rights Council in 2006.
This story offers much to analyze on any question of how far this human rights system, and its successes and failures, have been "Western" or not; inseparable, indeed, from such questions about the UN itself. That last development however reflects on how far rights have come as an international concern: from the near-miss of the UN's birth, when the major powers would have had it deal little in human rights at all, to the brandishing of a systematized major body to which all states are accountable through the Universal Periodic Review, and whose choice of name – Council – attempts, in heart if not in teeth, to equate itself to the Security Council; that is, to assert human rights as of equal importance to the UN's founding concern for peace and security.
As in theory and creation, to call this progress "Western" – or to explain its failures by blaming some parts of the world more than others – is to oversimplify a vastly complex picture. Societies everywhere have played constructive and destructive roles in it, or changed positions over time on account of disputes amongst themselves. What we see, again, is that builders of the human rights project, and enemies alike, have come from every part of the world.
The USA is a case in point. It has swung back and forth as both leader and archnemesis of this project, upon the ups and downs of its Cold War narrative and the value rifts which define its population. After hesitancy and hostility to being held answerable to the world in the 1950s, as displayed in Cold War interventions leading to pain and humiliation in Vietnam, the Jimmy Carter administration of the 1970s sought to put human rights vociferously at the centre of US foreign policy. Whatever the integrity of this, to have human rights raised as a standard by one of the dominant author powers of the bipolar security narrative did much for their normative profile, especially as US commitment waned again in the confrontational 1980s. But with US administrations and public mood alternating dramatically on a regular basis, to this day, the US stands out, as a superpower, for its refusal to sign or ratify many of the cornerstone human rights instruments, or for loading its commitment with self-exemptions, even if this leaves it in company of only the world's most unsavoury regimes.69
The US, along with the USSR and leading nations in both blocs, bore great responsibility for the intense politicization of human rights under the Cold War narrative. That the competing blocs were outspoken about human rights from their own ideological perspectives, was made manifest in the passing of the two overarching human rights treaties of 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
But what is significant for the question of "Western-ness" is not that ideological differences split this project in two. Rather, it was the attempt to shape the international rights framework into a rhetorical tool that absolved either bloc of its problems by denying those problems' validity as human rights issues, rather than, as ought to have been the case, helping both blocs to better identify and address those problems. The countries orbiting the US were quite willing to overlook the social or economic rights of their people, and the Soviet bloc its own repressions of civil and political rights; both instead sought in the human rights framework a political advantage in defining themselves as its champions, in a struggle between essentially superior and inferior systems of life. In other words, to subvert the very essence and purpose of human rights altogether – let alone develop them in sincerity.
This is most apparent, of course, in the mass violations of all kinds of rights both blocs visited on Africa, Asia, and South and Central America in this period, let alone on their own dissenters or discriminated groups, and regardless of what images of rights they claimed to espouse. It was not until 1976, indeed, when the ICCPR entered into force, that the right to self-determination – long resisted by the colonial powers and pushed for by a coalition of mostly Muslim states – was solidified in international law.70 The result, as also apparent in security and development paradigms, was a West-centric dominance of globalization narratives and practices which alienated the rest of the world – and the majority human population – to the point where it is all too easy to see them as passive satellites in this era. Regardless of the UDHR's universally-constructed language, rights practice was often shaped or mis-shaped by the overridingly real power of Western attitudes, values and interests: from international legal structures to peacebuilding missions71, from the institutional inheritances of decolonized states to the framing of academic disciplines.
There is credence, then, to suggest problems of Western dominance in international human rights norms; especially if one looks back on their language and identifies, in Freeman's words, presupposition of 'a certain social form, which is not universal'.72 Upon such concerns, non-Western peoples developed their own regional human rights instruments during this time which stressed different aspects of the discourse they felt needed emphasis – either to improve or to object to the international framework. Europe itself played a precedent-setting role in this, establishing the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, and accordingly the European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice, which hold precedence over its member states' sovereign instruments.73 But instruments like Africa's Banjul Charter, pairing rights with duties and specifying peoples' rights over their own natural resources, and the American Convention on Human Rights with its added stress on socio-economic rights, must be seen as legitimate human rights contributions from their respective peoples.74
These are not mere imitations, nor necessarily polticized maneuvers. Rather they reflect genuine grievances with Western biases which either fail to reflect the rights concerns of people in their countries, or disregard their historical experiences. On history, we should recall that while the major atrocities driving the world's human rights awakening came, for the West, from World War II, for much of the rest of humanity it was centuries of colonial ransacking that provided their most vivid experience of rights ruination: hence, for example, the African provision to protect their people's rights over their natural resources. Social realities are relevant too, here reflecting Cobbah's argument for considering African ways of life, and the limitations of Western approaches' denial of 'the needy's right to economic sustenance and society's obligation to satisfy this right'.75
Not counting the insincere use of such things as pretexts for violations, as we come to next, these are honest concerns for which the real livelihoods and identities of real people are at stake. We speak here not merely of diverse values, but the practicality of how to implement human rights to best meet the rights of peoples who have faced different types of rights violations, and still struggle to assert their identites in a globalization narrative that has often diminished them. To these ends, non-Western critiques and efforts in international human rights must be considered legitimate parts of the global rights project, and valued for their contributions just as they are scrutinized for their faults.76
Disputes over typologies of rights – civil and political versus social and economic – must be recognized for what they are in this regard. All these rights represent attempts by people to apply the human rights tool, to better the experiences of human beings in diverse aspects of life; there is no real division of substance. All can be construed in terms of freedoms or needs, outcomes or processes, positive or negative; and in different societies with unique and complex circumstances, applying them in practice requires they be addressed comprehensively. None inherently are the meaning of rights; the tool is what we make of it. Thus, there are two kinds of disputes over types of rights. The better comprises different perspectives debating how to make the human rights tool most effective in addressing human concerns: and thus, all contributions develop the global project. The worse comprises politicizing attempts to deflect, deflate or dismiss rights altogether, and thus escape their demands for the disputer to take responsibility. Neither type of dispute – constructive or destructive – favours some countries or civilizations over others; both are global.
That divisions between types of rights are of negligible substance was made clear at World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, 1993, whereby it was declared that 'all' rights were not only universal, but also 'indivisible', 'interdependent' and 'interrelated', to be treated 'on the same footing, and with the same emphasis', despite the need to bear in mind different 'particularities' and 'backgrounds' and regardless of 'systems'.77 Alas, the true divisions were in the politics of rights, not the substance – and the Western bloc, during and after the Cold War, has been an unequivocal driver of that politics.
A final word here is due on the rights of vulnerable groups, both as a classic blind spot of Western rights approaches, and an area which the international rights framework has accelerated in attempts to catch up. On national and ethnic minorities, Europe was again a source of great resistance, and a locus of the violating catalyst – ethnic cleansing in the disintegrating Yugoslavia – that at last led to measures such as the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities.78 But prejudice, especially based on the gender problem, and hostility to sexual diversity, remains a leading contemporary driver of rights violations across the world, and though these have painstakingly been pushed onto the UN agenda over recent decades79, they remain major struggles in international human rights for which the West, as key originators of gender and sexuality prejudices and globalizers thereof through colonialism, is in no better position than non-Western societies.
In sum, the global body of human rights policies and practices is no more territorial than the human rights concepts they espouse. Though the UN Charter and UDHR speak of 'fundamental', 'equal' and 'inalienable' rights, they make no reference to theoretical underpinnings: rather their 'common understanding of these rights and freedoms' reacts to a global context where our species was violated to the extreme, and where people everywhere have advanced that understanding upon different experiences of those violations, battling against those everywhere who would subvert or deny this system to prolong that violent order. The resultant human rights framework was not so much grown from a world which generated thriving roots for it, as unceremoniously dropped upon the ruins of one whose people, fatigued and frustrated, were fed up of how poor their ethical records had been in its absence. How we interpret this framework, what territorial identities and interests we infuse or deny in them – those are not inherent to it, but a choice we face to this day.
But though it has been necessary to assess theory and practice separately, they are not as apart as they look. Because this basis in choice, this agency, this will, is itself perhaps the only rights base which humans in all times and places can access; the power that makes those rights universal. In Jerome Shestack's words, 'law creates societal pressure for adherence; adherence creates habit; habit creates custom; custom becomes a culutral attribute.'80 Law is itself a normative cultural expression, and from it we harvest clout that goes back in the pages as well as out to the world: theory and practice are bound by feedback loops even if not by explicit mutual reference. This feedback now occurs at a global scale, as human rights instruments gain acceptance worldwide, and the loss of international face from seeming to stand in contempt of them is real: the "poor human rights record" is a monkey on the national shoulder which once acquired is nigh impossible to shake off.81
We established and continue to build our HRs framework, and argue about what it should look like, because we choose to do so: whether because or in spite of the maze of interests, ideologies and double standards from which we assert those choices. In so doing, we nevertheless project a reflection of ourselves as a species with something in common, with enough in common, to believe we should concern ourselves with one another's well-being. This is the human as a social animal, and there is nothing territorial about that.
And yet, as we can witness for ourselves in any land, the international rights framework has not been enough to actually protect our rights. They remain violated, mocked and disowned in all countries, on massive scales and frequently along territorialized lines. To the enemies of human rights, the human rights problem, we come to now. It, too, is not a non-Western or Western problem, but a problem of all humanity.
3) Narratives of Relevance: the Universal Enemies of Human Rights
Not all criticism of international human rights has been constructive. Their fitness for purpose, as a tool to improve human life, has been threatened by those who would either deny their relevance; subordinate them to value or interest systems with claims to higher authority; or politicize their discourse and practice. All of this prolongs the actual problem: that in all countries, rights violations of many kinds are active, severe, and often normatively or institutionally sanctioned.
This section aims to assess not that problem itself – whose universality is indisputable – but the games those violators play with rights concepts to reduce their effectiveness in solving it. This is another area where narratives, especially popular narratives, may stress the West as different, usually better, than everyone else. Here I argue to the contrary that the misuse and subversion of the human rights concept is a global problem, to which contributions come from every country, albeit in different manners and contexts; and that therefore, human rights are of global relevance in that they can, if we so choose, serve as a universal tool, without territorial bias, for societies to identify, understand and address their problems, or be held answerable for doing so by the rest of humanity.
If we so choose. This, as we draw this discussion to the present, is the critical point. As a conceptual tool, human rights, in the end, are what we make them, and bear significance in the broader choice of what kind of world we wish to live in. Inherently, human rights give us everything we need to raise them as a projection of common humanity, even and especially of diverse common humanity. But they also have nothing inherent to stop us making of them an explosive political football, a detonator of divisions between cultures, states, civilizations and human beings; nor to stop us forsaking their visions for the easier path of unscrutinized cultural relativism, which would cost us more than we know.
That is the problem. The integrity of human rights as a problem-solving tool now negotiates a passage, as they say, between a rock and a hard place82 – that is, threatened on one side by challenges to their universality, and on the other from dishonest universalist language that would have human rights entrench rather than solve those problems. Narratives that construe human rights as Western are winds that may blow the project into the maws of either monster.
Thus it is not enough to state human rights are universal. We face the task of steering them through hazards on both sides: two slopes to ominous futures. To avoid one, we must argue that rights should be universal. To avoid the other, we must argue that rights should be universal well. A territorial narrative permits neither.
a) Charybdis: The Whirlpool of Universal Human Wrongs
The problem of asserting universal rights, as we have seen, is that we do so in a world where other forces, antagonistic to rights or human well-being more broadly, also pursue universality. The danger for human rights is not merely that they can lose this contest, but something more sinister. Human rights, themselves, can be bent and shaped to serve the very destructive forces they were meant to protect us from.
There is now no shortage of warnings about non-Western perspectives doing this; especially on accommodating socio-economic rights, still more so cultural rights.83 Repression and abuse in communist bloc countries, all the while with socio-economic rights commitments construable from, for example, their provision of strong social security or (in a case such as Cuba) healthcare of the highest standards, exemplify that this danger is real. Universal rights can be recruited to universalize wrongs, hiding beneath their banner; over-subjectivizing human rights' conceptual sharpness can blunt their teeth.
What gets less attention is the extraordinary role Western societies have played in that kind of exercise. The manipulation of human rights to render the concept ineffective against certain types of violations cannot be projected squarely on non-Western societies. The West, too, has pulled the concept off course. Some major currents include:
- Leviathan-based models of state and society, and competing Leviathans in the international system, as estabished both by Western states' Cold War policy (including communist states) and the Western discipline of International Relations. Far from universalising human rights, this went a long way to universalizing the politicization of human rights: universalizing an understanding of state behaviour, indeed, as revolving around the pursuit and exercise of power without responsibility.84
- The development paradigm, by which the journey of societies to improve themselves was monopolized by the Western discipline of economics. Development was thus reduced to models of humans as atomistic automatons seeking material gain, in a hierarachircal division of the world into "developed" and "developing" countries. This concept was especially projected onto the world through the conduct of multinational businesses and the international financial instutions, thus denying the significance of peoples' own identities and concerns, as well as the vast and complex legacies of colonial history. The mainstreaming of this approach internalized a harsh and divisive paradigm into the international system, loading it against the human rights project and skewing all rights language that had thus to be interpreted through it.
- The Western emphasis on law,85 particularly formal, punitive law based on fear, obedience and adversarial justice procedures, as a supreme social logic and problem-solving apparatus. International law as a construct has grown largely in the image of Western legal systems, and since the UDHR has been the primary mechanism of international society's human rights efforts. It is thus too easy for rights to become shaped not according to their potential to improve human experience, but according to what is easiest to enforce by law – when enforcement, alone, is a very weak tool of social operation and certainly not sufficient for protecting human rights of any kind.86
- The post-Cold War antagonism between the West and (particularly) Muslim societies, as characterized by such terms as 'clash of civilizations' and the 'War on Terror'. As in the Cold War, a narrative emerges of a conflict of good and evil between territorially-defined segments of humanity, with a West-centric human rights narrative deployed as a marker of Western identities' moral superiority.
All of these are monumental themes of our globalized world, with too great a multitude of sub-themes and debates to thoroughly deal with here. The point is that once such narratives take possession of human rights, and convince us that rights presume – or worse, mean – the "national interest", or "development", or "the law", then rights become compromised. They lose the ability to highlight the capacity of "interests", or "development", or "the law", to violate rights themselves. It is exactly the species of whirpool feared by those who argue a socio-economic conception of rights is a gift to tyrants: rights are coupled to a separate agenda which promises human good; then that coupling takes on normative weight, and becomes assumed; and having pulled in the human rights concept, the whirlpool monster consumes and digests it. The human rights concept becomes recycled as a part of that monster, reinforcing its normative power in holding up a narrative of itself of good, even as rights are vanquished in substance.
The finest example of our time happens to come from the West. When the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, the official argument was the threat to peace and security from purported Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. However, humanitarian pretexts were of mighty influence in making the popular case; and this relied not so much on logic, as the resonant assumption that the West, especially in its "democratic" political system, somehow inherently embodied human rights. The link had become so organic to the war's supporters, to the extent they were convinced that to impose this system through violent conflict and occupation, would far outweigh any bloodshed, trauma and long-term consquences thereof in securing the human rights of Iraqis. The sincerity of this belief persists in those who still maintain the invasion improved human rights in Iraq, in that their binding of human rights to the existence of "democratic" political institutions, regardless of all else, overrides for them the full range of anguishes Iraqis have suffered resultantly.87
No approach to human rights is immune to the whirlpool's pull. Least of all the West's, including classical commentators' like Locke's warning to not tolerate atheists, or Mill's about barbarians who cannot reciprocate.88 This vulnerability is to be expected: the ship of human rights must navigate past humanity's whirlpools of political and historical wrongs, whose violent waves smash it off balance with clouts of unbalancing surf. And they have every reason to: for it is evident, from the rhetoric, the scholarship, the activism, that human rights carry enormous normative and emotive resonance of their own, to rally, to inspire, to embolden, far exceeding whatever we establish of them in objective discourse and law. What vested agenda would not wish to absorb that resonance for itself – would not hunger to make it its own?
We see how even the academics on board get splashed by those waves when Ghanaian scholar Josiah Cobbah appears to place Mr. Donnelly in this category, for whom he suggests 'the issue is how to make Africans "Westernize" faster and peacefully': human rights thus devoured by chauvinistic Western development narratives, and re-grown as an appendage in their service.89 Colonial and post-colonial legacies are a prime example of human rights' loss of meaning through territorialization: for, in Africa for example, one invariably stands accused of either advancing universalist rhetoric as a vehicle for imposing Western interests and ways of life; or discounting their relevance in order to shield corrupt and abusive African elites from responsibility to their people. Politicized in either direction, actual Africans and their actual rights are left stranded.
That narrative – along with those of the Cold War, the War on Terror, legal positivism, sovereign Leviathans and so forth – suggests that the West is not only vulnerable in falling into these whirlpools, but especially vulnerable due to its role in creating them. In the end, human rights narratives that give the West authorship of the concept, or a special identification with it, become a whirlpool monster themselves; and mainstream discourses – in policy, in academia and in popular discussion – entertain the notion that Western societies, by virtue of being Western societies, are the pinnacle of human rights in the world today.
The hypocrisy this projects on the rest of the world is a chief driver of the human rights system's struggles. Especially with European countries taking a lead – if selectively and imperfectly – in highlighting rights violations outside the West, it becomes all too easy for the repressive states involved to retort with "no you". And the power of that rebuttal comes not merely from the fact of Western human rights violations, but from its dramatic deflation of that massive narrative, hollow but all too quick to re-inflate, presenting the "developed", "democratic" West as the heroic main character in the global human rights story. The effect is not only to stall the instruments of international human rights law – which as with most UN instruments, fall upon states to implement them – but to cheapen the discourse of the international human rights project: to see its normative integrity, its power to inspire and mobilize, siphoned away to fuel those whirlpools which devour the people human rights were meant to protect, along with the concept itself: to project themselves as human rights' incarnation.
In summary, not all the whirlpools are Western, but some of the strongest evidently are. And in the project of universal human rights, it is necessary to keep inspecting our ship, and making sure it is in fact something sanely definable as human rights, something still bound to outcomes of human well-being, and not a hijacking monster, that we seek to universalize.
b) Scylla: The Multi-headed Monster of Inhuman Diversity
The human rights project is threatened across the strait by a different monster. Unlike the previous, which reaches subtly from the deep, this one has thrashed visibly around in the rights discourse for decades. It has many heads, and each professes values so different from those which produced human rights, they argue, as to make the concept inapplicable to their own domains. If rights are universal, it says, then this beautiful diversity of heads, and their right to their own identities, are suppressed by the Western values and interests borne on what is in fact an self-regarding, hegemonic, neo-colonial human rights battleship.
These approaches, often termed 'cultural relativism', challenge the universality of human rights on the grounds that a given society, all of which are different, should not be held to account by the rest of the world for what the world calls human rights violations, but that society calls the legitimate exercise of its cultural values. Such voices deny the universal legitimacy of the international human rights project, asserting that this project is foreign to them – and by implication, rooted in foreign cultures and territories, typically Western ones.
As we have seen, human rights are indeed a cultural creation. So too is the UN itself. Creations of a diverse, global culture of humanity, and one which has grown and developed on a world's worth of contributions, experiences and debates. What that means for the cultural relativism argument is self-evident: universal human rights, inherently, have done no disservice to human diversity, but instead have grown from a common humanity that shines all the brighter amidst our colourful range of identities.
But the practice is not so simple. Cultural relativism arguments have become a powerful impediment to human rights discourse and practice, for two main reasons. The first is that many of the monster's heads represent societies of enormous political, cultural, spiritual or economic power: including some we have already seen as constructive contributors, such as the Chinese and Muslim civilizations. The second is that they benefit from being a counterweight to the hegemonic ambitions, real or perceived, of Western whirlpools across the strait: the voices of cultural relativism hold huge persuasiveness in inspiring resistance to those tendencies.90
The image of human rights as "Western" – the portrayal of that boat as a battleship – is exactly the pivot upon which these arguments depend. In mere logic they are unconvincing, and have been refuted to death many times over in the discourse. Their power comes not from their substance but from their political usefulness, and their passionate resonance, amidst historical injustices and raw emotions, for people struggling with threats to their dignity and ways of life.
What are the monster's heads? We will not count them all here, but the largest and loudest are well-established. Perhaps foremost is that of "Asian values", as came to the fore in the 1990s mainly from the People's Republic of China, and the regimes of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahathir bin Mohamad in Malaysia. Their perspectives portrayed Asian culture as more concerned with efficiency and discipline than with freedom, and defended authoritarian governance as necessary for economic development.91 Another came out of Muslim countries, as presented in the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, considering the UDHR-based framework in conflict with Sharia law and subordinating human rights to it; that is, to an interpretation far weaker on rights of religious freedom, freedom from sexual and gender repression, and freedom from cruel punishments, among others.92 And these voices are all the more vocal when it comes to the rights of groups experiencing prejudice: for example the portrayal of homosexuality as "un-African",93 and the fierce hostility of its opponents to letting those abused for their sexual diversity gain access to human rights language.
But there are plenty of Western heads on that monster too. Foremost among them, indeed, are Western relativisms: human rights as strictly civil and political, dismissive of socio-economic concerns, and at worst based in punitive law, to be imposed by Leviathans, on inherently selfish and conflicting human individuals. This, itself, is culturally skewed; and that it has wielded huge influence does not make human rights Western. Rather, it too is cultural relativism. To subordinate human rights conceptions to market ideology, for instance, and thus deny socio-economic concerns a place, is no different – and no less dubious – an exercise than denying rights of religious or gender freedom by appealing to Islamic principles, or to civil and political liberties on account of "Asian values". Nor does it do human rights any service when Western corporations, like Starbucks and McDonalds, have their Saudi Arabian restaurant branches comply in gender apartheid, deploying cultural relativist arguments to hide still cruder motives.94
As the purpose here is to highlight the danger of West-centric narratives, we need not dwell long on the bankruptcy of cultural relativist arguments. The plainest problem is that the monster's heads chew on their people while making their case. As Shestack, Amartya Sen, Thomas Franck and many others point out, those doing so do not command legitimacy in the societies they claim to represent, expressing little more than the 'self-interested preferences of a power elite',95 identified not with culture but 'authoritarian rulers'.96 On "Asian values", Sen rejects any demonstrable link between authoritarianism and economic effectiveness,97 while Malaysian former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim voiced that 'to say that freedom is Western or un-Asian is to offend our traditions as well as our forefathers who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustices'.98 Singaporean opposition politician Chee Soon Juan likewise eviscerates his country's political establishment for the ruthless repression it has legitimated, on a platform combining this veneer and economic prosperity.99
Cultural relativism moreover rests on a monolithic vision of culture, described by Shestack as 'a static, romanticized perspective...(of) unchanging, holistic entities, unaffected by human history or the dynamics of cultural change'.100 But cultures are the people in them: diverse, complex, and often coming from different directions to define their cultures. Dialectics and struggles are frequent: Confucianism versus Legalism in China; progressivism and conservatism in Britain; the "culture wars" in the US. Critical and counter-establishment forces have played momentous roles in all cultures, and must be considered equally part of them too. Who is to say, objectively, that Singapore's face looks more like Lee's and less like Chee's? That Malaysia's values are Mahathir's and not Ibrahim's? The narratives are often set either by powerful minorities or arrogant majorities, neither of which represent the people they are forced upon. The history of human rights exemplifies this: hence how diverse cultures, value sets, political realities and even religions have contributed the building blocks of rights understandings and practical mechanisms, while simultaneously demolishing them. It is true too of the West, with its own staggering diversities and both positive and negative contributions; the term "Western" itself may be barely coherent.
And this is to say nothing of the reliance of cultural diversity on its own universalist principle. It is not just an empirical argument – "all cultures are different" – but a normative one: "therefore leave us alone". That presumes, already, a universal right of some sort for your culture to be left to manifest in whatever form so transpires, even to the most unspeakable of extremes; highlighting that relativist arguments, and their contest with human rights, are not matters of intrinsic truth but a contest of choice.
However, we cannot complete this rebuttal without removing those arguments' conceptual fulcrum: the notion of rights as Western, or territorial at all. This is because in practice, there is one very real fear to which cultural relativism gives expression, which means that so long as human rights have a Western association, people will tremble at the coming of that ship of human rights and shelter in the monster's cave. This is the notion that human rights are 'the enemy of the common good, social responsibility and community'.101
The point is not that this is anywhere near correct. Human rights are neither a friend nor an enemy of society unless we wield them as such; which touches on their core significance, to which we return at the end. The point is fear, in historical and political context. Western individualism, seen as the crux of Western human rights approaches and solution to their targeted problems,102 becomes associated by onlookers with flawed Western value systems leading to social breakdowns in Western countries: be it antagonisms between older and younger people, or noisy and adversarial political or judicial forums, or the triumph of material self-interest and degeneration of human relationships with each other or with their environment, above all in a sustainability crisis of global consequence but mostly Western creation.
From fair perspectives, the Westerners' own fears are not wrong. Abuses of individual freedom have brought huge historical agonies and continue to do so; communitarian arguments are too easily put in service of murderous social orders, including Europe's Nazi and Soviet experiences and non-Western cultural relativist repressive regimes, from Singapore to Saudi Arabia. But on the other hand, not all concern for social health and economic satisfaction is insidious; these too are vital areas of human well-being. A life without food or love can be just as painful, or just as short, as a life where you are punished for speaking out of turn. Individualism, when individuals are perceived as selfishly taking from or ruining all that they touch, can be frightening. And for people outside the West, the threat may feel all too real given their centuries-long struggles against Western interests' and values' consumption of their own values, identities, institutions and resources, and with it the erosion of the relationships and ethics that keep people together. In that light, cultural relativist language, for respecting sovereigty and preserving traditional values, gains immense rhetorical force and emboldens hearts.
This has nothing intrinsic to do with human rights. But the danger of West-centric rights narratives is that all that is feared or resented about the West, becomes conflated with the substance and practice of human rights – especially if they have nothing to offer people facing socio-economic hardships. The rights discourse and apparatus becomes no more than the face of a roistering Western cruiser of atomistic self-aggrandizement, to batter a diverse world with waves of homogenizing anti-values which drown its very humanity. From that perspective, it becomes bloodcurdling; far more terrifying than the bloody teeth of the cultural relativism monster's repressive heads, and as such it is little wonder how many then flee to its cave in hope it will protect them. They neither realize nor care that it is a trap, by which cultural relativism raises high the fact and good of human diversity; then in its atrocities, devours the 'human' component, leaving it mere diversity – inhuman diversity.
To call human rights Western plays straight into its bloodthirst. The monster has no need to aggress the human rights ship; for if that ship hoists enough proud national flags and corporate logos, it will send enough people running to feed all those heads perpetually. To gain legitimacy for the relevance of human rights in all societies, we cannot portray rights as in any way representing one set of civilizations – let alone one whose members are so widely perceived as antagonists.
A caveat here. For all the dangers of cultural relativism, cultural diversity is valuable and essential for human rights' sake. Cultural erosion is a genuine problem, especially as overlooked by the development paradigm and experienced at its worst by indigenous peoples. The human rights project, for all its need to reject cultural relativism, cannot lose sight of this. The ferocity of the cultural relativism monster makes it reflexive for the ship of human rights to jerk back the other way, straight into universalism's whirlpools. Donnelly's critique, for example, asks us to consider whether 'the underlying concerns and needs in the area of human rights...are, for objective, historical reasons, essentially the same today in the Third World as they were two or three centuries ago in England and France.'103 This is false; and that is not history, let alone objective history, but a reductionist abstraction. If nothing else, all France's and England's miseries of that era, they authored themselves. The Third World's miseries were authored by, among others, England and France. Entire civilizational identities, institutional systems and value frameworks were uprooted, jumbled together with Western ones, then dumped back upon them in an incoherent heap in a violent, impoverished and hostile Cold War era. So though non-Western societies have also generated many of their own problems, few of these are understandable outside the context of colonial derailment; culture and identity are not just buzzwords, and to some people can convey things more important than mere survival.
On human rights relevance, the implications are twofold. First, that non-Western societies' circumstances are unique: and protecting rights there requires, in pragmatism, a flexibility – without compromising integrity – to engage with their specific situations, their hopes and their fears. An order that protects human rights cannot abide if forced: the people in it have to want it, and will only want it if they can author its story in their own society, and can trust it to honestly represent their needs and their dreams. Second, that Western states, as former colonizers also complicit in binding the Third World to predatory post-war paradigms, are in the worst position possible to speak of human rights in non-Western states. This is about more than moral hypocrisy: the world remains divided along the lines that colonialism drew, though these have evolved104, and it is all too easy for Western preaching to appear as "White Man's Burden v2.0", or pretexts for the further conquest of non-Western identities by "superior" Western ones, while projected by states which still raise high the paradigm of national self-interest. Recalling examples like Iraq, this can be all too convincing, and violently divisive, in societies experiencing or witnessing this first-hand.
The worst position possible to speak: but international human rights obligations mean they must. That is the challenge for Western societies and states, and claiming human rights as Western will not overcome it. To convince, it means dispelling all illusion that they retain that narrative: by dropping their selectivity, and taking concern with rights in states that can punish their own interests for doing so; by acknowleding their own rights problems, and demonstrating a commitment and ability to learn; and by turning off the whirlpools of their creation, from the flawed development paradigm to interest-based foreign policy agendas. Until they do – until those waves subside – the lair of cultural relativism, though it dooms all who enter, will remain an appealing shelter.
c) Through the Straits and Around the World: A Tool for Global Problems
Both monsters, and all their forms, may well make us wonder if human rights are worth it at all. Patently, and we can all observe it happening, their language and tools are prone to misdirection towards exactly the nightmares they were meant to deliver us from.
It is a fair concern. Human rights are not a burst of light from the stars that evaporates societies' social, political and economic demons on contact and makes all our dreams come true, as much as their power to inspire may make us wish it. They can offer a perspective for us to identify the drivers of human problems, and thus find solutions, but will not in themselves solve those problems for us. But on the other hand, given their power to inspire, and the instruments we have spent the last few decades developing on that inspiration, it would be questionable of us to think we can solve our problems without them.
We thus return, at the end, to essence and form. The vital essence of human rights, the common denominator of all honest approaches, is that there is something about our humanity that drives us to expect better of ourselves than mutual brutalization. We can do better; we want better; we can conceive of ourselves doing better; and we can give those hopes tangible form. And that form matters: for all the flaws and failings and controversies of our international human rights apparatus, it has elevated that essence, that assertion that people matter and are worth something, to a status and clout in global affairs no other effort has given it. It has grown over decades of experience, offers us lessons with every tragic failure, and still struggles on;105 and against a global system that has spent goodness knows how long denying it in the most disdainful and bloody of ways, that is an achievement and an asset for humankind. We have few other such assets to draw on, and would be in sorrier shape if we did not.
They are a valuable tool: no more, but no less. And no less, but no more: because the best tool in the world can still be swung the wrong way and smash someone's skull. To wield human rights to good effect requires us to be seriously concerned to do so: they cannot substitute for the will that is first required. Territorializing narratives are one of the biggest dangers to that will, because in this day and age, all societies have rights problems. No state or society is in a position to speak from a high horse on human rights, and to territorialize them – to place them in one civilization's ownership, or deny their importance in another's affairs – risks reducing them to the status of a football in arrogant political or ideological contests that ruin the rights of people everywhere.
And this is why we must return, here at the end, to that argument that human rights, by emphasizing individuals, threatens society and community. Why is this so important? Because it demonstrates exactly human rights' significance, as a reflection of how we define our species.
Rights are a tool: we choose how to wield them, and what vision of ourselves and the world we are working to. The problem they face is complex. Society and state violate the individual's rights; or the individual rises on society's weakness and the state's expense; or inidividuals violate individuals, societies violate societies, states violate states. All of these are real, entrenched, and excruciating.
In defining and implementing rights, there are essentially three approaches. The first is to consider these problems as normal, or the world as like that by nature, and thrive off it. Thus we either manipulate rights into whirlpools of self-serving wrongs, or deny rights altogether to more easily feed on people: hence the two monsters just considered. Of this, disgrace is the only outcome.
The second is to take sides in that conflict. Individuals are meant to be free, and are good; societies and states are repressive and power-hungry, and are evil. Or, society and state must be strong to keep order, and are the only guarantors of good, while selfish, unenlightened individuals are a menace. This way, human rights can be shaped to empower whichever of these narratives we choose, in belief that all will be well if our chosen side wins. But because global problems are caused by individuals and societies and states, and likewise their effects do harm to all three, such approaches will not solve the problem. Take a rights approach that favours one type of human or human group, and the most malevolent members of that category will flourish upon it. The best members of all the others will suffer the consequences; our global problems will remain severe to the end.
The third approach is to recognize that societies, cultures and states are the people in them. Splitting these into categories competing to sit on top of a hierarchy is meaningless. Something good for a group is only good if all the people in it are its authors, want it and choose it – with no-one coerced. Something good for the individual is only good if it does not harm others; lest his or her satisfaction become unsustainable, for harm breeds ill will and conflict that brings down the system providing it. Only ending our mistake, the paradigm of selfish competition and delight in the failures of others, will reduce our global challenges to reasonable levels. From such a perspective, human rights are not about raising some up and humbling others, but building a system that benefits all: helping individuals and social units work out their relationships, responsibilities and expectations on a platform of inalienable human worth, finding what shapes thereof work better and learning from those which work worse, and transmitting those lessons down the generations.
Any narrative of rights as Western, or as coming from or belonging to some of humanity more than the rest of it, can only throw it open to the first two agendas. Such narratives further divide us, deepen our conflicts, and thus give fuel to voices of despair, pushing our kind to accept that conflict as natural, inevitable and impossible to escape: that instead we at best must accept and manage it, at worst take satisfaction and gain from it. Conversely, a universal narrative of rights does not immunize them from those paths – they can still be loaded and manipulated. But it gives them the primary human equality required for a better approach.
The point, in the end, is a simple one. Human rights will not help us decide what kind of humanity to be. We do, and must, decide that first, and then human rights are a ship to help us get there. If we want that place to be good and sustainable, it must be satisfactory to everyone in it; and if we want it to be satisfactory to everyone in it, then the ship must get past the monsters. To get past the monsters calls for teamwork: all on board must be equal participants, and have the perspectives of their own experiences and values listened to. Different sails might work better when wind conditions change; different value backgrounds may better spot a sneakier whirlpool creeping up beneath the rudder, or a monster-head behind the backs of people opposite. However, raising territorial flags, whispering of moral hierarchies or competing for the image of worthiest contributor, is a sure way to turn the crew against itself and the ship off balance to exactly where the monsters want it: an eternity stuck in the straits amidst turmoil, conflict, and blood in the water.
To get past this paradigm, it is plain that different societies, with different value identities, traditions and sets of challenges, have developed unique strengths and weaknesses in servicing the well-being of their members. Rights typologies, rather than fighting each other, can offer a perspective from which these can be identified, and more importantly, mutually learnt from. The wave of austerity programmes in Europe exemplify how many Western socieites still have a gaping hole when it comes to recognizing why social and economic conditions are important both for individual well-being, and the healthy and peaceful character of society as a whole.106 Without concern for socio-economic consequences, freedom in the West becomes dog-eat-dog licentiousness where only the most ruthless and manipulative stand to gain. Meanwhile the Chinese approach, pursuing economic vigour and social harmony, neglects the importance of political freedom and civic dignity to these goals as much as ends in themselves:107 and though it is easy to blame this on authoritarian tyranny on the part of the Chinese Communist Party, it stands to reason that some Chinese value traditions (particularly the Qin-era Legalist paradigm that abides in the CCP, as well as Confucian hierarchies), historical traumas and sheer demographic enormity have all contributed to a view of the social good in which the indivudal, as an autonomous and dignified being, looks very small indeed.
Rather than abhorring human rights as a threat to venerated national cultures, traditions and interests, any state has everything to gain from finding in them an opportunity to frankly assess its own failings and mistakes, and look at others' examples to decide what it ought or ought not to do to improve its people's human experience. In so doing, the health and integrity of its culture is strengthened, and its own authorship of that process protects it, and the concept, from states which would use human rights rhetoric as a vehicle for cultural predation.
Rights can offer this service anywhere: are universally relevant for solving problems. But so long as a West-centric narrative stands – so long as the imagery of French insurrection, American scrolls or English philosophers in wigs is the first thing people think of when they hear human rights, and their painful experiences of Western behaviour the second thing – then how might they find the courage to do this? How might they choose this of rights, if to do so appears an embrace of Western values to their friends (if individuals) or citizens (if societies)? How easy does it become for the least worthy among them, to present it as such for nefarious motives? With courage they can proceed, yes; that courage is necessary; but it must be supported by Western humility to lay down the imagery of exceptionalism. Because we all have problems: and what we choose to want from rights, to solve those problems or solve only ours while worsening other people's, reflects what kind of humanity we want to be.
Conclusion: In It Together
In this assessment, we have explored how human rights are as universal as we are prepared to admit them, in all their aspects:
- Contributions from across the world to their conceptual development;
- The international human rights framework as a cooperative project;
- Their flexibility to be adapted to different experiences of human suffering, in a world of diverse identities and historical experiences;
- And their usefulness and relevance as a tool, that can help to understand abuses of humanity in all places and times, to establish them as wrong, and to explore ways to resove them.
But if there is one thing I hope most stands out from all this, it is that this lack of inherent territoriality is not only a quality of human rights' essence, form and contemporary relevance – but also a goal. Being a tool, it can be territorialized for any number of interest and ideology agendas, and through either theoretical rhetoric or the loading of practical instruments, be turned towards outcomes destructive to human beings. It has no identity of its own: only that which we choose to give it. Human rights are what we make them.
It is hard to conceive of human rights as meaningful, as sustainable, without a bedrock in sincere responsibility and care of human beings for other human beings. The impression is that diverse approaches have different aspects of this to contribute. The impression is also that Western approaches frequently see fit to discount this, and rely on a much shakier foundation that begins with humans as naturally inadequate and ends with coercive law; and thus are not equipped to deliver this alone, and must engage with different perspectives that can show the Western ones their weaknesses just as the West can show them theirs.
The heart of the problem of territorialization is this. Humans are both individuals and social animals; as characters we are defined both by our autonomous agency, and our relationships to other characters. Once these two dimensions are placed in conflict with each other – whether by emphasizing society without regard for the people in it, or the individual without regard for his or her society – then outcomes that harm human beings are assured. The essence of human rights might seek to prevent this, but we have seen their language used time and again to endorse violations from one extreme, by fuelling fear about the other one, in a context of conflicting societies which emphasize different sides of the equation. Neither abuse of the concept is inherent to it: rather, both result from the agendas and ideologies we see fit to provide as its context. The bottom line is a choice of what we wish to be as humans: cooperative with one another, or in competition; disposed towards the best outcomes for all and aware that this promises the best returns for oneself – or preferring instead to seek gain for oneself from the detriment of others, having convinced ourselves that this is our nature. How we define human rights conceptually, and implement them in practice, reflects our answer to the question of what we are.
Human Rights are a tool, not intrinsically one thing or another. We decide what they are to mean. Thus they are not attributable to people in any one society or territory more than to those in any other. Humans worldwide, in many civilizations, can and have conceptualized or practiced the norms and values we associate with human rights; can and have at times dealt contempt to the extreme upon the rights of one another; can and did participate in building the international framework of institutions and laws that make up today's human rights regime; and can and do, from any given perspective, interpret or wield the human rights toolbox in ways shaped by their experiences, values and goals, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. This is no more or less "Western" than "Eastern", "Northern" or "Southern"; no more or less European than Asian, African or American. Human Rights are and must be, in every regard, a Human affair.
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Yuen, Mee-Yin Mary: 'Human Rights in China – Examining the Human Rights Values in Chinese Confucian Ethics and Roman Catholic Social Teachings' (Graduate Theological Union, September 2001).
1Inevitably "Western" is an ill-defined term, less geographical and more historical. Typically it encompasses at least western European civilizations and their most notable extension, the United States; but it masks huge diversities and differences between and within those civilizations, is hazy on where we should place the boundaries of this "Western" world, and risks similarly reducing those outside to a similar generalized bloc found beneath the "West" in a hierarchical narrative which is itself part of the problem.
2As quoted in Sen, Amartya: 'Human Rights and Asian Values', in The New Republic (14-21 July 1997), p.1.
3Two personal observations may help illustrate this. The first concerns the teaching of history in British schools, which in my experience presented, among other things, highly Euro-centric narratives of twentieth-century events (such as WWI, WWII and the Cold War) still of relevance today, in such a way as downplayed or underemphasized the significance of peoples outside Europe, or particulary the misdeeds committed by the UK or Western societies towards those peoples. Such seems a problem in many nations' approach to history, including, notoriously, Japan's. The other example comes from the London School of Economics (LSE), where many discourses, such as on nationalism or International Relations, are also heavily loaded towards value-driven, Euro-centric narratives.
4Donnelly, Jack: 'Human Rights and Human Dignity: An Analytic Critique of Non-Western Conceptions of Human Rights', in The American Political Science Review, Vol.76, No.2 (June 1982), p.303.
6For example Shestack, Jerome J.: 'The Philosophic Foundations of Human Rights', in Human Rights Quarterly, Vol.20, No.2 (May 1998), p.206-8 and p.215-6.
7As interesting to note in the number of indigenous societies worldwide whose denominator for themselves translates as 'human' or 'person'.
8Freeman, Michael: 'The Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights', in Human Rights Quarterly Vol. 16 (1994), p.502.
11Donnelly, p.303-311. This again raises the hazy question of how to define "Western", specifically of whether Russia falls within this grouping. Though the USSR asserted itself at the centre of a distinct and opposing bloc to the USA and Western Europe in the Cold War, leading the latter to be characterized as the "West" in contrast to it, both the Russian civilization and its Marxist identity elements grew out of Europe; while the Russian empire was an active participant in the Westphalian power games of Europe's defining centuries.
12For more details, see Yuen, Mee-Yin Mary: 'Human Rights in China – Examining the Human Rights Values in Chinese Confucian Ethics and Roman Catholic Social Teachings' (Graduate Theological Union, September 2001), p.9-12 and 16-18.
13The normative resonance of which has been enormous throughout Chinese history; this concept pre-dates Confucius but has been invoked even by the Chinese Communist Party in its own appeals for legitimacy.
15Locke, John: ‘An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government’ (1689), in Peter Laslett (Ed.): Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1960), p.367: '...there remains still in the People a Supream Power to remove or alter the Legislative, when they find the Legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them...whenever that end is manifestly neglected, or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited, and the Power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security.'
16This being zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, connoting obligations in terms of taxes and wealth distribution; which make for interesting contrasts with Western (especially Anglo-American) market ideologies, and the effects thereof on their Human Rights conceptions.
17Said, Abdul Aziz: 'Precept and Practice of Human Rights in Islam', in Universal Human Rights, Vol.1, No.1 (1979), p.66-7.
18An example here is the sustainability crisis, for which Western societies have largely been culpable, and wherein the rights of future generations have held limited place in their human rights concerns.
19Cobbah, Josiah A. M.: 'African Values and the Human Rights Debate: An African Perspective', in Human Rights Quarterly, Vol.9, No.3 (August 1987), p.318.
21An example being crises and abuse in care for both children and the elderly in Western societies, which I can corroborate from experience in the United Kingdom – including the experiences of vulnerable elderly acquaintances – to be a serious problem and constant source of scandal in that country. According to Cobbah, this would be unthinkable in an African context, where care for the vulnerable is considered a prime responsibility of the entire community.
23Weinberg, Matthew: 'The Human Rights Discourse: A Bahá'í Perspective', in The Bahá'í World (1996-7), p.247-273.
25Specifically with Locke; see Freeman, p.497.
26As expressed for example by Donnelly, p.315; see also Section 3 of this paper, below.
29See Donnelly p.307, and Said p.68: 'Both the rulers and the ruled are working for the glory of God whose commands must be fulfilled for achieving happiness here and in the hereafter...sovereigny belongs to God alone.
31See Shestack, p.205: as he notes, especially in imposing 'severe limitations on individual freedom' and restrictions on 'slaves, women, and nonbelievers'.
32Both in theory (e.g. the subordination of the female in the Biblical creation story) and in practice (e.g. Europe's mass live burnings of people, primarily women, accused of being witches).
33This last is ironic, in that sovereignty is now one of the most frequently invoked concepts by repressive regimes to defend their rights violations. The notion of Western authorship of the human rights concept is done little service by its like authorship of unchallengeable state sovereignty and export of it onto a global scale.
34See Franck, Thomas M.: 'Are human rights universal?', in Foreign Affairs 80.1 (January/February 2001), section 'Building New Bonds', for more specific examples of the blood-drenched record of Christianity in Europe.
36Locke, John: 'A Letter Concerning Toleration' (1689). Catholics and Muslims due to their religion apparently signifying loyalty to a foreign juristiction, namely the Roman Catholic Church or Ottoman Emperor; and atheists because, in Locke's opinion, 'promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.'
37Here defined as the construction of separate assumptions, norms and expectations for men and women, despite those constructs' lack of biological basis; their social imposition onto people both formally and informally; the punishment of persons considered to deviate from those norms or laws; and the paradigm of tension, conflict and mutual incomprehensibility created between males and females as a result. These combine to create one of the foremost calamities of the human race. For a more detailed reflection of mine on this matter, see http://www.aichaobang.blogspot.com/2011/10/gender-disaster.html.
38That being United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council Resolution: A/HRC/17/L.9/Rev.1 (15 June 2011).
39Even one of the Western commentators of highest ethical integrity, John Stuart Mill, has this to say: 'To suppose...the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians, is a grave error...Barbarians will not reciprocate. They cannot be depended on for observing any rules. Their minds are not capable of so great an effort...(and their nations) have not got beyond the period during which it is likely to be for their benefit that they should be conquered and held in subjection by foreigners.' See Mill, John Stuart: A Few Words on Non-Intervention (1859).
40Bentham, Jeremy: Anarchical Fallacies; Being an Examination of the Declarations of Rights Issued During the French Revolution (1843). http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1921&chapter=114226&layout=html&Itemid=27.
41Hobbes, Thomas: ‘Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill’ (1651) in Richard Tuck (Ed.): Leviathan (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991). See in particular Parts I and II.
42Indeed, the very concept of tyranny is denied here: 'because the name of Tyranny, signifieth nothing more, nor lesse, than the name of Soveraignty…I think the toleration of a professed hatred of Tyranny, is a Toleration of hatred to Common-wealth in generall, and another evil seed (of the death of the state).' See Hobbes, p.486.
43No disrespect is intended for Hobbes himself: for to live in fear, amidst civil war and relentless English political persecution of him, makes it perhaps unsurprising that fear manifested itself at the centre of his creations. Respect is less warranted for those thereafter who willingly embraced that fear as a desirable fulcrum on which to build political realities; and who would still suffice with a humanity that should aim for no better than this today.
44For Economics, consider its role in the sustainability crisis, and its monopolization of the development paradigm: on the latter, especially the role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in devastating societies through its structural adjustment programmes and precipitation of the 1990s economic disasters in Russia and East Asia. See Stiglitz, Joseph: Globalization and its Discontents (Penguin Books, 2002). On International Relations, charges include the legitimating and normalizing of the paradigm of states pursuing selfish interests and sovereignty without responsibility: a logic still strongly established and expected of states today, and the very leading antagonist which human rights narratives, including Western ones, have grown up to hold answerable. For IR's long exclusion of human rights concerns, see for example Waltz, Susan: 'Universalizing Human Rights: The Role of Small States in the Construction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights', in Human Rights Quarterly 23 (2001), p.45. And on top of all this, we should remember these disciplines' influence on the minds of generation after generations of students – and whatever they become – through how they are taught in education systems.
45As rose as a competing socio-political model to those of Confucius, and found expression in the Qin Empire (221-206 BCE) which first unified the Chinese civilization. In short, Legalism is Hobbes's Leviathan on steroids, reducing the individual to nigh insignificance before the need to preserve the state, and allowing for the most ruthless of punishments and cruelties. This too has been an abiding force in Chinese thinking and practice; was far more a basis for the Chinese Communist project than the ideas of Marx or Lenin; and echoes in Chinese arguments on "Asian values" and critiques of Western individualism to this day.
47Shestack p.215, especially footnote 30.
48Charter of the United Nations (1945): http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/intro.shtml. See especially the Preamble and Chapter I, Article 1.
49Other than what we might take from the Preamble's statement of 'the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small'. There is space in this phrasing both for the rights of humans as individuals and humans as groups; the UN's founding document does not imply any need for these two to be in conflict.
50Buergenthal, Thomas: 'The Normative and Institutional Evolution of International Human Rights', in Human Rights Quarterly, Vol.19 (1997), p.703-4 and p.708.
52Or 'widely regarded as nothing more than a compendium of classical Western political and civil liberties.' See Glendon, Mary Ann: 'The Forgotten Crucible: The Latin American Influence on the Universal Human Rights Idea', in Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol.16 (2003), p.27.
53Glendon, p.27-8. International commitment would have seen, among other things, the US made accountable in international law for racial prejudice, the UK and France for their colonies, and the USSR for its Gulag. See also Waltz, p.51-2, and Buergenthal, p.706.
57As related in Waltz, p.51.
58Indeed credited to him by John Humphrey, the first UN Human Rights Director and principal drafter of the UDHR. On this and the rest of Chang's contribution, see Waltz, p.59-60.
59As most apparent, at the time of writing, in its stances on the UN Security Council towards the civil war in Syria.
60Glendon, p.27. See throughout her text for more on the Latin American contributions sumarized here.
61Such as the 'Declaration in Defense of Human Rights' in Lima, 1938, and at the 1945 Inter-American Conference in Mexico City, where they sought to advance a human rights declaration onto the UN Charter.
62Susan Waltz credits the persistence of Hansa Mehta of India as the reason Article I of the UDHR states 'All human beings are born free and equal', rather than 'All men'. For this and the other examples in this paragraph, as well as many more, see Waltz, p.54-64.
64Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
65United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
66United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
67International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
68Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
69For example, the US has ratified neither CEDAW nor CRC, on the latter being one of only two countries – the other being Somalia – not to do so. It also did not ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights until 1992, and only then did so with the catalogue of reservations, understandings and declarations viewable at http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/usdocs/civilres.html. See also Waltz p.70.
71On peacebuilding, see for example a recent analysis of mine on the East Timor conflict, available at http://www.aichaobang.blogspot.com/2012/05/conflict-and-peacebuilding-in-east.html#more, especially Section 2, Part C, on Western-defined approaches to justice and how they were not necessarily helpful to East Timor's recovery. See the works referenced in that text for more detailed studies on this problem.
72For example the right to join a trade union, less relevant to societies with alternative institutions to protect the rights of relevant persons; see Freeman, p.511. One might further suggest that trade unions imply divisive economic structures in society (i.e. industrial classes and their relations) that are not themselves universal; and a logic of necessary conflict between them that is even less so.
73European Convention on Human Rights (1950): http://www.echr.coe.int/NR/rdonlyres/D5CC24A7-DC13-4318-B457-5C9014916D7A/0/Convention_ENG.pdf.
74African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1981): http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/z1afchar.htm. See Article 21 on wealth and natural resources. See also the American Convention on Human Rights (1969) at http://www.cidh.oas.org/basicos/english/basic3.american%20convention.htm.
76Indeed, as Donnelly identifies, 'human rights appear as the natural response to changing conditions, a logical and necessary evolution of the means for realizing human dignity' – see Donnelly, p.312. And though he is right that individualist approaches thus react to all too objective conditions that threaten individual rights, the problem is that stressing those rights from a singular direction, based on theories assuming inevitable conflict between individual and society, will not resolve those threats. More diverse perspectives, participation and authorship are needed, even as scrutiny of them all by each other must be rigorous.
77Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993): http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/topic,459d17822,459b17a82,3ae6b39ec,O.html, Article 5.
79The former in the evolving gender discourse, and efforts such as gender mainstreaming and the inclusion of gender concerns in the Millennium Development Goals; the latter also in a growing discourse and the passing of the 2011 Human Rights Council resolution mentioned in the previous section.
81Or in Buergenthal's words, ''Many governments still violate human rights on a massive scale and others would prefer to be free to do so. But...they are increasingly being forced...to respond for their behaviour to the international community.' See Buergenthal, p.704.
82The analogy, represented in the subsection titles here, is that of Scylla and Charybdis from ancient Greek mythology, whereby sailing hazards in the Straits of Messina were represented as two monsters: one a six-headed rock-dweller, the other a whirlpool monster, for which the challenge of passing between them without damage or loss has become proverbial.
83Or against any 'dilution' of rights, such as Donnelly's insistence on keeping them distinct from human 'dignity' – making it 'easier for a repressive regime to cloak itself in the mantle of human rights while actually violating them'. See Donnelly, p.315.
84Especially backed up with appeals to the status of positivist science and the language of 'timelessness'. As argued in section 1c of this paper, any human model that rests on elemental self-interest and conflict, in which responsibility is not a meaningful concept, is untenable as a foundation for human rights.
85Though of course, law as a concept has hardly been unique to Western societies.
86The glaring example of this is precisely the ongoing rights violations in all states, regardless of the mass of legal instruments they have endorsed and accumulated over the last seventy years. A more specific example, again, was the ineffectiveness of international law mechanisms on the problems of post-conflict justice in East Timor; see note 68. Human rights requires, among other things, critical thought, responsibility, sincerity of commitment and an ethic of care: things which law can support, but cannot alone secure for society.
87Among them everyday insecurity due to war and insurgency; harships in employment and satisfying basic material needs; sectarian violence and endemic Islamist extremism; and illegitimacy and corruption in the new political elite. However, the UK Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, described it as the Arab world's first 'fully functioning democracy with a free press, properly contested elections and an independent judiciary', with the invasion thus constituting a 'British foreign policy success'. See Gove, Michael: 'Triumph of freedom over evil', in Scotland on Sunday (20 December 2008): http://www.scotsman.com/news/michael-gove-triumph-of-freedom-over-evil-1-1302486. Furthermore, for a similar line from former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the war's leading architects, see Helm, Toby: 'Tony Blair should face trial over Iraq war, says Desmond Tutu', in The Observer (2 September 2012): http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/sep/02/tony-blair-iraq-war-desmond-tutu.
88See notes 34 and 37, above.
90See for example Sen, p.10, on how 'the championing of Asian Values is often associated with the need to resist Western hegemony', and Shestack, p.229-30 on the resonance of cultural relativism in a colonial and post-colonial context.
92Nine years earlier, the Iranian representative at the UN General Assembly had declared the UDHR 'a secular interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which could not be implemented by Muslims'. Post-revolution Iran was in high profile throughout this process; see Littman, David G.: 'Human Rights and Human Wrongs', in National Review (19 January 2003): http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/205577/human-rights-and-human-wrongs/david-g-littman.
93Divani, Aarti: 'Is Homosexuality "Un-African"?' , in Think Africa Press (12 October 2011): http://thinkafricapress.com/gender/homosexuality-un-african-colonialism.
94Manning, Nicole: 'U.S. Companies Support Gender Segregation in Saudi Arabia', in National NOW Times (National Organization for Women, Summer 2002): http://www.now.org/nnt/summer-2002/gender.html. The source quotes the president of Starbucks as stating: 'As a guest in any country where we do business, we abstain from interference in local social, cultural and political matters'.
95Franck, section 'Building New Bonds'.
99Chee Soon Juan: 'Human Rights: Dirty Words in Singapore', in Porter, Elizabeth and Offord, Baden (eds.): 'Activating Human Rights (Peter Lang AG, 2006), p.155-173.
101 Franck, section 'Building New Bonds'.
102 For example, again, by Donnelly, p.312-3.
103 Donnelly, p.313.
104 Particuarly with formerly-colonized countries now emerging as powers in their own right, such as China, India and Brazil, further complicating the discourse and practice disputes here, and not especially in ways which benefit humankind.
105 Including in emerging concepts such as Human Security and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which owe a lot to the work the human rights project has done.
106 With the latter increasingly clear in multiple forms, but well summarized by Greece's ordeal of riots and social instability, and the rise of virulent xenophobia as a political force. While the most extreme example, all of Europe at present has reason to fear these currents, not least because it knows well from history where they lead.
107 As evident in the last few years from violent upheavel in Xinjiang, self-immolation protests by Tibetans, waves of strikes and riots by workers in the southern provinces, intractable corruption (particularly in provincial and local as well as corporate government, but exposed at the highest levels in the Bo Xilai scandal) and its effects on popular trust, and an ongoing problem of one of the most extreme urban-rural wealth disparities in the world. See also Yuen, p.5-7.