What’s so universal about human rights?

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, as a promise to uphold basic and inherent rights for all people in the aftermath of World War II. For over six decades the Declaration has been used as an international standard to hold states accountable for their actions and to advocate for basic service provisioning and human equality. 

There is no doubt that all humans should enjoy access to education, health services, and a sense of security. These are some of what we would call basic human rights. Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone would disagree that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article I). This commonly held belief has led to these human rights being labelled as universal, freely applied to all national and cultural contexts. But can a concept such as human rights, deeply imbued with Western origins, properly address “human rights violations” in the Global South? More pressing, what are the implications of imposing a Western human rights discourse in inappropriate cultural contexts?

Take, for example, the highly debated topic of female circumcision/female genital mutilation (FGM). (In many ways, the choice of terminology reveals much about one’s views on different cultural practices – but this is an issue outside the scope of our discussion). Regardless of how we label it, general consensus is that this practice violates human rights to health and safety; it is marked as backward and barbaric, and human rights are supported as the obvious solution. Yet there are significant consequences when Western voices intervene in a culture to say that something is “wrong.” For the present example, human rights are called upon to change legislation and criminalize female circumcision/FGM. This action can take female circumcision/FGM out of hospitals and into unsanitized and unprofessional settings – essentially making the practice more dangerous than before.

The above example demonstrates how implementing universal human rights can adversely affect a population that is trying to be helped. Arguably, a better approach to female circumcision/FGM would be to provide culturally appropriate education on the health and safety risks that the practice creates. Parallel to this approach would be a willingness to understand why certain populations continue to perform female circumcision/FGM – what traditional and cultural meanings are attached to it? This dialogue could then act as an entry point into discussions of how to mitigate the risks involved, how to eliminate a harmful practice without eliminating socio-cultural meanings at the behest of Western imposition. 

Human rights, after all, are a product of the Western imagination. While it is all too common for the West to intervene in the South, the human rights discourse cannot be applied universally; to do so may actually result in more harm than good. The example of female circumcision/FGM illustrates the dangers of intervening without regard for cultural context. In other cases, when historical considerations of colonialism are forgotten, human rights may be downright rejected as a form of contemporary Western imperialism (see the issue of LGBTQ rights in Uganda, for example). While the intentions of human rights advocates are certainly pure, it is paramount to reconsider the concept’s ascribed universality. The case for a culturally appropriate approach is strong and certainly necessary if basic human dignity is to be upheld – in all possible definitions of the term. 

- Zoe Share