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Challenges for universal human rights Essay


A fair number of countries around the world have been criticised for poor human rights implementation. It is essential to study them and determine why these nations have not embraced universal human principles because behind every observation is an underlying ideological or philosophical premise. At this point, one must recognise that there are two divergent ideas that exist in this matter; universalism and relativism (Freeman, 2002).

Critics often argue that universal human rights contravene multicultural societies and should therefore be abandoned. However, proponents of universalism argue that humans need to constantly understand each other and also need to seek for ways of improving themselves. To abandon the very notion of universal human rights would be to accept the status quo. These diverse notions have therefore complicated the human rights agenda and need to be critically analysed.

Women’s rights and circumcision

The issue of female rights as analysed through female genital mutilation (FGM) in various parts of the world provides a unique platform for understanding how challenging universalism of human rights can be. Many societies in Africa and the Middle East engage in this practice; which is a fact that has generated a lot of debate around the issue. Proponents of this practice base their standpoints on three major grounds.

They assert that it suppresses sexuality in women thus propagating monogamy. Conversely, it can be understood as a distinct representation of one’s cultural identity. Most individuals who hold this view are actually women who are expected to or who have gone through the practice themselves. Girls in these societies are socialised to respect marriage, so female genital mutilation becomes an important precursor to eligibility for marriage.

These women cannot be opposed to the act because if they choose to do, they may be alienated and condemned to a life of loneliness. Circumcision is a platform for identification with one’s community or kinsmen. Other supporters of the practice think of it as a symbol of beauty. The clitoris is perceived as a masculine trait so its removal would reinforce their femininity (Abusharaf, 2001).

On the other hand, this practice puts its participants at serious risk of infections, infertility or even tetanus. Those who do it for religious purposes may not find support for it in their holy books such as the Quran. Female genital mutilation can also lead to painful sexual relations, death and very difficult (if not fatal) childbirths.

All these effects makes it a seemingly vicious and even torturous act. It is no wonder that the United Nations considers FGM a violation of female rights (More, 2006). Such human rights groups have sought to repress or wipe out the practice altogether (Shute & Hurley, 1993) However, the problem is that making it illegal does not necessarily make it go away.

Affected communities still need other ways of enforcing respect, femininity, social status and the like and unless the latter matters are addressed then it is likely that the custom will carry on. This means that such social-cultural concerns deeply come in the way of enforcing universal human rights. Furthermore, issues revolving around cultural continuation may also be another big impediment and these definitely minimise the possibility of eradication of such a practise.

Northern versus Southern discourse

Sometimes what some have categorised as a universal framework of rights may actually be a perpetuation of western hegemonic beliefs. Usually, poor countries perceive ideas from the North as a mild form of colonisation because little consideration has been given to these country’s perceptions of human rights.

In fact, quite a lot of human rights assumptions are founded on an individualist notion of society. However, poorer countries often give precedence to collectivism. Their respect for group rights is normally marginalised over other individualistic concerns. (Pollis, 2006)

In situations where advocates from the North are working from the South, it is common for the former to automatically assume that the latter are victims and in need of rescuing. Human rights defendants from the United States and other similar countries frequently stereotype most human rights issues in poor or developing nations by classifying them as ‘barbaric’ and in need of serious eradication (Merry, 2002).

Taking on such superior stances actually comes in the way of instating true reforms. This is because prescriptive approaches never work as well as descriptive ones (Sikkink & Keck, 1998). Since most emphasis has gone to transference of ideas without necessary advocating for dialogue then universality of human rights may still be a farfetched reality.

Communality over universality-the case for Asia

Several Asian leaders such as Lee Yew of Singapore have asserted that Asians tend to give a lot of precedence to prosperity and social stability. In such conditions, these societies may demonstrate loyalty to their authorities over personal benefits. These leaders tend to look at interpretations of human rights in the West as distinct to their economic and social backgrounds. (Freeman, 2002b).

Furthermore, they believe that state interventions may sometimes be necessary in order to get these nations to where they need to be in terms of economic growth. However, one can see that authoritarian governments can take advantage of such premises to protect their oppressive rules (Glendon, 2004).

In fact, other Asian advocates have asserted that communality in Asia needs not be regarded as incompatible with universal human rights. In fact, they assert that to claim that their cultures are incompatible with rights and freedoms of others is actually taking on a racist premise (Malcontent & Thakur, 2004). The distressing fact is that certain citizens in these said nations may fall victim to extensions of these state’s laws.

Those governments may argue that as long as their citizens get access to basic human needs like food then the other issues (including human rights) can be covered by the state. (Jones, 1994). To this end, arguments for sovereignty, national security and the like will take primacy over proper treatment of these individuals. Advocates of the universality of human rights may therefore need to overcome such authoritarian governments in order to ensure every single human being is treated equitably.

Philosophical challenges

In order for societies to think of human rights universally, there must be an agreement on the philosophical basis for human rights yet this is still yet to occur. First of all, existence of universal human rights implies an endorsement of moral truths.

However, not all philosophers back this kind of premise. Most happen to fall within the moral relativist school of thought. These adherents affirm that all societies are characterised by a wide array of cultures and hence beliefs or principles. Consequently, any concerns about human rights need to be made context specific so as to fully address the diverse array of believes.

It is as though relativists are arguing that certain human rights can be foregone if the situation in one’s culture demanded. In this regard, moral relativism appears to be incompatible with universal human rights. As long as there exists such extreme opposition to universalism, then possibilities for the latter’s instatement are rather slim. These discourses need to be addressed in order for the latter movement to move ahead.

Secondly, some critics have opposed the assumption that human rights can be regarded as moral rights on the basis of the subjective nature of morals.

Since moral beliefs are created on the basis of some of the underlying subjective beliefs, then it would be unfair to try and impose one’s moral accord upon the lives of others. In this regard, the latter critics hold that universal human rights rest on the premise that there is an a priori rational moral principle where all other doctrines emerge. In deed the rationality of human rights itself can be contested.

The sentimentality inherent in it cannot be ignored because most of these beliefs are actually motivated by the need to sympathise with others (Braithwaite, 1999). It is indeed difficult to set these concerns aside as they attest to the appeals behind human rights hence universal human rights for that matter. These philosophical arguments indicate that there is yet to be a morally compelling explanation for universal human rights amongst various parties thus illustrating why there are still problems in implementation.

Cultural relativist concerns

In order for universal human rights to triumph, then objectives by cultural relativists need to be looked at and accommodated. Holders of the latter believe that enacting a universal set of human rights would be ignoring the empirical differences inherent in human society (Tilley, 2000).

There are practices and norms that fundamentally alter human rights issues. Relativists claim that political variables, cultural variables, desires and preferences are all essential influencers of human rights. In this regard, certain communities define their identities based on their families or their kinship ties.

Therefore, these communities may find it very hard to conceptualise individual autonomy. Family worth is more important than self worth in African societies. Other Native American tribes tend to think of non tribal members as less than human (based on myths and stories of origin) and this affects their perceptions of the latter. Cultural relativists therefore tend to look at universal human rights as parties working towards dominance and imposition of their values upon others.

By its very nature, cultural relativisms cannot co exist with universal concepts because it places a lot of emphasis on the need to acknowledge and hence respect diverse customs and beliefs. These differences are actually what make the world as we know it very interesting and unique.

Trying to instate universal human rights would therefore be seen as a method of homogenising the world. Once again, the hegemonic concept creeps in here. Most cultural relativists say that poor countries have been oppressed from time in immemorial. In the past, these societies utilised their resources to do so (as the case is in colonialism), however, modern forms of domination are founded on cultural precepts. Universal human rights may therefore be opposed based on these grounds. (Pollis, 2002)


At the very basic level, most challenges for universal human rights are actually derived from the relativist-universalist debate. The best way of overcoming these barriers would therefore be to first acknowledge cultural diversity and then work out solutions to incorporate them into perceptions and conceptions of human rights.

There is a need for tolerance in pursing these interests but most importantly, a revision of traditional understandings of human rights will need to be considered. These reconstructions could possibly put to rest arguments like western hegemonic domination and the northern –s southern discourses.


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Pollis, A. (2002). A New Universalism, in Pollis and Schwab (eds.), Human Rights: New Perspectives, New Realities, Boulder, CO. : Rienner publishers

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