Human rights

The myth of the universality of human rights

The global conflicts that arise from the myth of the universality of human rights still remain an enigma. Human rights are one of the most valuable concepts ever invented. Yet the nuances of the Rashomon effect (interpretation of the same phenomenon in a contradictory way) constantly weigh on him. So, it is truly surprising that global institutions and academics have tried to capture a dynamic reality of rights within an ontological framework that is universally acceptable. In the present day of VUCA, the promotion of human rights has taken the form of an industry rather than a moral appeal based on ambitious global standards.

Moreover, after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it was reproduced through regional instruments around the world. The conundrum remains the same: Based on the statement, are we able to protect everyone, including asylum seekers in Poland or newborns in Syria from being human? Thus, the myth of universality has witnessed many conceptions of the good which may be individually valid but not reconcilable.

What we wanted as ambitious global standards became contextual events. For example: the disagreement over the basic right to life as well as the differences on capital punishment and abortion between Christian law and Sharia reflects conflicts over the general acceptance of human rights. In addition, the current refugee crisis in Europe is a testament to the value of pluralism in Europe when it comes to human rights as they suffer from the problem of the impossible trinity for governments: do we try to make our own citizens feel safe? b) Do we have to follow international law? c) Should we let refugees in and take care of them?

Thus, in order to tackle this conundrum, human rights must be operationalized in a dynamic context taking into account regional and cultural particularities. Academics like Jeremy Bentham and Loius Henkin have defended human rights as “natural rights” and “jus cogens (imperative law)” respectively. Yet the major problem of universality and general global acceptance of human rights persists. Therefore, we need to study the transformation and evolution of human rights as systems conditioned by idiosyncrasies to issues related to local histories, faith and cultural traditions. Human rights must emerge as a “problem-solving and alleviating mechanism” rather than a teleological, parallel evolutionary competition between societies. For example, accepting the conception of LGBT rights and women’s rights has both temporal and spatial (location) considerations. People in developed democratic countries like the United States are much more advanced intellectually and culturally in admiring the importance of LGBT rights compared to emerging Orthodox Arab or African societies.

We must therefore tackle this enigma of formalism and get out of the myth of universality which never exists in the context of Human Rights. The universality of human rights should not be seen as the provision of “essential public goods”, but as a happy chain of social evolution which justifies its ability to solve problems in any society.

The author is a candidate for the philosophy department of the LSE.