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Debating the “universality” of human rights
An article by Sara de Jong
On December 10, 1948 a major step towards equality and freedom for all individuals in the entire world was taken: the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This document had been commissioned almost immediately after the end of the second world war. The unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust had made world-wide support for freedom and equality for all humans a matter of the greatest urgency. The persons ‘behind’ the declaration came from many countries, distributed evenly over the continents, with an important role played by the American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Jewish French legal scholar René Cassin, the Indian activisit Hansa Mehta and the Chinese philosopher Zhang Pengchun.
The heart of the declaration is its universality: it promises equal rights to all human beings all over the world (although it took a woman, Hansa Mehta, to change the references to ‘men’ into ‘human beings’, so as to avoid gender inequality). As René Cassin said (when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968):
“The other salient characteristic of the Declaration is its universality: it applies to all human beings without any discrimination whatever; it also applies to all territories, whatever their economic or political regime.”
However, over time a huge debate arose over the question how universal this declaration really was or is. It caused conflicts with, and some even say it violates the laws and belief systems of other cultures. Opponents have portrayed it as a Western liberal program forced onto the rest of the world, to increase the power of the West. Two examples are especially known: one from the Islamic world, and one from Asia.
In 1990, the member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference came together in Cairo to discuss and adopt the so-called “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam”, which can be seen as a protest against the universality of the UDHR. There are two important differences: the UDHR treats every person, man or woman, as an individual with equal rights. The Cairo Declaration treats men and women as belonging to two different classes, with different rights and duties (article 6). Something similar can be said about Muslims and non-Muslims: they, too, have different rights and duties. The freedom of religion, one of the central aspects of the UDHR, is simply rejected (article 10).
Another example is the so-called Asian Values debate, which also reached its height in the 1990s. Politicians of various Asian countries, most often of countries with little political freedom, sharply rejected the UDHR as having no historical validity for Asian cultures, and therefore once more as an instrument of Western cultural and political power. Where the Islamic countries brought human rights under the authority of Islamic law, these Asian politicians stressed general “Asian values”. Most of these consider the community to be more important than the individual. Two examples are: social harmony (a Confucian ideal) is much more important than individual freedom, and economic well-being is much more important than political freedom or other civil liberties.
Both the member states who signed the CDHRI and the main spokesmen for the Asian Values represented countries which were often accused of serious, long-lasting, human rights violations. Their negative views on the UDHR were therefore not always taken seriously. But the question of the universality of the UDHR has continued to linger, and will probably be triggered again in the future. Therefore, we must have a debate on what ‘universality’ means and how this can exist alongside cultural differences.
Cassin, René. (1968, December 11) Nobel Lecture. Visited on 7 February 2014:
Milner, Anthony. (n.d.) What’s happened to Asian Values? Visited on 7 February 2014:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (n.d.). Visited on 7 February 2014:
The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. (n.d.). Visited on 7 February 2014: