Against Universal Human Rights

by Megan Bridges

The following article was also featured in The Spectrum:

In what was presumably a cold, Parisian winter in 1948, representatives of the United Nations drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in an effort to establish and protect fundamental human rights globally. As a consequence of porous borders and increased migration, it is certainly politically useful to institute a set of human rights like those listed in the UDHR that transcend modern-day geopolitical arrangements. However, the implication that human beings innately lay claim to certain inalienable, nonnegotiable rights is contentious. So, we must ask ourselves, do universal human rights exist? And, moreover, what are the consequences of enforcing them?

Bear with me as I lay some of the groundwork that will allow us to begin finding answers to these questions.

Cultural relativists argue that rights are social constructs. In the seminal text Homo Sacer by Giorgio Agamben, a distinction is drawn between what Agamben refers to as “bare life” and the “political body.” Bare life refers to human beings as mere biological organisms not belonging to any particular social or political category. The political body, however, is a human being recognized as belonging to a state, most commonly by means of citizenship. He goes on to write, “In the system of the nation-state, the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man show themselves to lack every protection and reality at the moment in which they can no longer take the form of rights belonging to citizens of a state.” Agamben argues that stateless human beings are reduced to mere bare bodies, stripped of the so-called “inalienable” rights normally superimposed onto political bodies by the state. That is, you would be fooled to think that human beings are born with rights on the sole pretext of their humanity; we are given rights by governments so long as they recognize us, and these rights—extrapolating from Marxism—are guided by cultural values shared by the bourgeoisie at a particular time and place in history.

Once you accept Agamben’s argument, it becomes clear that the UDHR does not promote a universal set of human rights, but instead a decidedly Western take on them. For instance, the drafting committee had little representation from outside of Europe and the United States. Among its ranks were the Member States of China, France, Lebanon, and the United States, followed shortly after by Australia, Chile, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom; those representatives from the East had been educated in stateside colleges. Furthermore, several of the rights outlined in the UDHR are clearly Eurocentric, such as the rights to nationality and property, which are ironically post-colonial artifacts throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Let me be clear before I move forward: while I consider myself to be a cultural relativist, I do not follow moral relativism. That is, I recognize that human rights are social constructs insofar as each culture has its own set of moral codes that its members have either tacitly or overtly agreed upon. However, as someone socialized in the West, I adhere to the moral traditions of my culture, and personally agree with many of the rights drafted in the UDHR. Whether the West has the authority to claim that their rights are universal and impose them onto other societies, however, is another beast entirely, and is something I continue to grapple with internally.

Now that I established that human rights are not a necessary and universal condition of humanity, but are in fact imagined by states (and, to be clear, powerful states under Western hegemony), I want to briefly explore the possible political consequences of imposing these rights onto foreign communities through policy measures—and strictly enforcing them. Let us consider for instance two highly controversial examples of what are widely perceived as infringements on human rights: child labor and female genital mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision.

Regarding the former, in 1990, 20 United Nations Member States ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention recognized the basic human rights of every child, including the “right to protection from economic exploitation (Article 32) and the right to education (Article 28).” I recently returned to Penn after spending nearly eight months working in rural Nicaragua, where it is not uncommon to see children engaged in agricultural labor, animal husbandry, and, more recently, tourism. Is their work dangerous? Absolutely. Children as young as six or seven mount horses, wield machetes, and herd cattle, often times unsupervised. Furthermore, older children spend their weekdays tending to the farm, and can only attend school on Saturdays. Their labor, however, is necessary for the economic survival of their families; to not work would be a privilege. In cases such as this, the solution is not to outright ban child labor as this could result in grave financial consequences. As opposed to taking a strictly human rights approach, political actors and civil society instead ought to create economic alternatives that disincentive child labor so as to make it a zero-sum game.

In the latter example, efforts to unilaterally prohibit FGM in practicing communities ignore the importance of this ritual among its adherents. The practice—while perceived as horrifically cruel to many—is considered a necessary step in making women of girls. Historically, FGM was more than the sole act of female circumcision. It in fact entailed an elaborate ritual that included taking girls to the water post-circumcision to cleanse them so they could return home reborn as women. Now, however, FGM is increasingly performed in medical clinics with licensed physicians using anesthetics, who often choose to make superficial cuts on the clitoris as opposed to removing it completely. Oddly, a shift has occurred in modern-day FGM in which its principal concern is the act of circumcision, not the ritual surrounding it (perhaps a shift in the other direction ought to occur). Nevertheless, FGM maintains its intense cultural significance. A girl who does not undergo FGM is perceived as promiscuous and unmarriageable, and she is consequently socially marginalized. This can have long-term economic effects, such as poverty due to limited opportunities for social upward mobility. Given the circumstances, the easy fix is not to ban FGM—at least not yet. Before such a ban can take place, a cultural shift in values needs to occur so that uncircumcised girls do not endure any of the negative social and economic repercussions they currently face.

By providing the examples above, my aim is not to justify what we Westerners perceive as human rights grievances, but to shed light on how we might effectively resolve them. When working with local officials under the framework provided by the UDHR (which, whether you like it or not, is the document that guides many international development projects today), political and non-profit actors need to understand the cultural context and economic circumstances that give rise to certain “unethical” practices. Enacting a ban or other magic-bullet approach is not necessarily the panacea international organizations are in search of or even need. Instead, policymakers’ resources might be better directed towards devising alternative solutions that lie outside the realm of human rights to tackle these issues from a more culturally appropriate angle.

Works Cited