The notion that human rights are universal stems from the philosophical view that human rights are inextricably linked to the preservation of human dignity. This means that respect for individual dignity is due equally to one and all, regardless of circumstance. In this way, human rights must apply universally.
This is clearly the thrust behind the worlds main human rights instruments in operation today. The earliest human rights Charter of the modern era the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and of Citizen 1789 refers to the “natural and inalienable rights of man” and that “men are born free and equal in rights”.
(Note the term man is used in the sense of all human beings or mankind.)Order now
The same sentiment was expressed almost 160 years later in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which refers to:
“the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
The human rights contained in both of these instruments, and the many others that share their aspirations, are considered essential to the respect of every human beings dignity.
” this single page of print, which outweighs libraries, and is stronger than all the armies of Napoleon”.
Lord Acton (British Law Lord), on the French Declaration on the Rights of Man (1789)
What does universality mean?
The universality of human rights is a concept. This concept holds that human rights belong to all human beings and are fundamental to every type of society.
In this way, everyone has the same basic human rights. Individuals may exercise different rights, or exercise the same rights differently, depending on which group they belong to within society. Different groups include women, children, or those of a certain race, ethnicity or religion. Even if the form or content of human rights changes over time, the concept of their universality remains true.
The central tenet of the notion of universality is that human rights are themselves the right of all human beings. The most important rights of all, in other words, are everyones right to human rights!
Some argue that the concept of universality is culturally constructed.
Human rights are viewed as representing the particular belief systems of some cultures and societies rather than those of all cultures and societies. This is the so-called cultural relativist argument, the very rationale of which is to deny claims of universality. Accordingly, in their modern form, human rights are considered a Western construct of limited application to non-Western nations. This is the so-called “West versus the Rest” debate.
Some Asian political leaders have adopted this cultural relativist argument, for example, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and the former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. However, others have counter-argued that Asian values and the universality of human rights are complementary, for example, President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea, Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, and President Habibie of Indonesia.
In addition, the recently drafted Asian Charter on Human Rights (1998) forcefully reiterates the universality of human rights.
If we in Asia wish to speak credibly of Asian values, we too must be prepared to champion those ideals that are universal and belong to humanity as a whole. It is altogether shameful, if ingenious, to cite Asian values as an excuse for autocratic practices and denial of basic rights and civil liberties. To say that our freedom is Western or UnAsian is to offend our traditions as well as our forefathers who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustices.
Anwar Ibrahim, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia
One of the reasons why this diversion of opinion exists within Asia is that supporters of the cultural relativist argument believe the notion of universality to be promising more than it can deliver. Universalists disagree, pointing out that in fact the notion has definite limits.
The universality of human rights does not mean that the rights of every human being are the same for everyone, all of the time and in every circumstance. In fact, this would be impossible to achieve. Individual human rights do not exist in isolation of each other. In fact, they .