Human Rights: A Form of Western Imperialism?

Human rights are the rights we have simply because we are humans. Regardless of gender, religion or culture, they are guided by universal principles and values. The strong conceptualisation of human rights as a whole agreeably began in the West. After the second world war, with all the unfortunate atrocities the world bore witness to, came the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 drafted by the United Nations. The UDHR, now considered the most important and referred to document on human rights, outlines basic, universal and inalienable rights for all humanity. However, due to its formation in the West and the foundation on Western values, several countries and cultures argue that human rights are a Western construct and a form of neo-imperialism. This is why many states across the world restrict the application of human rights. Such as in the Middle East, there is strong disapproval of certain human rights due to prevalent religious laws and traditions, like the Sharia law. Although human rights are a western construct, mainly because of its ideation in Western countries, they do not represent the theory of imperialism, which in itself is a testimony as to how excuses are made to violate the Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Although the idea of human rights is an age-old construct, going back to the Cyrus Cylinder (539–538 BC), the modern human rights we refer to today, such as the UDHR, are based upon a few principles and values of these old, original forms of human rights. One can argue that the two pivotal declarations that laid the foundation stone for the conceptualisation of human rights originated in the West and therefore provides a strong basis for the theory of the Western construction of the same. The French and US Declarations are both frameworks and expressions of modernist Western culture which had a lot of impact on the UDHR. The Declaration of Independence of the United States and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen presented the fundamental principle of inherent and inalienable human rights that is now constituted as a core component of the UDHR within society today. However, it is prudent to note that when the UDHR was passed by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), member-states from across the world, representing different nations, cultures and traditions, unanimously voted in support of the document and only 8 abstained from voting.

To add on, although the French and US Declarations represent some of the core values of the Human Rights Declaration, the modern idea and structure have transcended this to give it a more global approach. When we compare Article 1 of the UDHR (1948), which states, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," to Article 1 of the 1789 French Declaration, which states, "Men are born free and equal in dignity and rights," we can see how the French Declaration influenced the intrinsic qualities of modern day human rights. In comparison, the UDHR also has articles which advocate for diversity, inclusivity and respect for all religions and cultures – basic universalism, for example Articles 2, 18, 19 and more*.

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

In contrast, the secular and more individual-oriented approach of the UDHR with rationalistic elements can be accredited to Western cultural influence and not universal and this is why these components can separate and disengage cultures that do not follow or approve of the same orientation; like not individualistic, rationalistic or even secular. This is where the difference between the West and the East come into play: a lot of Asian countries have more community-oriented cultures differing from the West and the UDHR’s emphasis on the individual rather than the society. This is a big cause for many non-Western states to accuse the modern-day idea of human rights to be a medium for Western nations to spread their interests across the world as a possible form of neo-imperialism.

Ironically, amid the arguments of Western cultural supremacy within human rights, cultural rights are enshrined as a central component of the broader construct of human rights. This can be corroborated by a few articles present within the UDHR, such as Article 27 which guarantees cultural and religious rights to all humans. This is an important reason why modern-day human rights can be and should be accepted by all nations, regardless of their geographical location or cultural beliefs. To substantiate this, one can look at the example of India. Back in 1948, India, as a newly independent nation, contributed significantly to the contents of the UDHR and ratified it without objection despite it being a majority Hindu nation. The UDHR notes that all humans are fundamentally equal by birth. However, in Hindu culture, the same belief is not shared which is prevalent in the endemic caste system present in the region.

Similarly, in Asia, several governments have argued that the cultural practises and traditions of certain nations (especially in the Middle East as aforementioned) such as the idea of family over the individual and welfare over liberty are contrary to the Western construct of human rights. It is also true that African and Middle-Eastern countries are some of the worst violators of human rights. For instance, the tradition of female genital mutilation is still predominant and prevalent in numerous countries.

The theory of human rights being a medium of neo-imperialism by the West is used as a garb by several nations to violate human rights and continue inhumane practices in the name of religion and culture. The concept of human rights and UDHR may be a Western construct with its foundations in the West, but it is not a form of imperialism. The UDHR outlines some of the basic rights and liberties an individual has and opens up channels to criticize the communities that violate them. For this reason, documents such as the UDHR serve as the conscience of the modern world and pave the path to a more equal and safe society for all human beings.

By Adi Roy

Edited by Thenthamizh SS



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