Universal Human Rights

Universal Human Rights

One of the most frequently asked questions with regards to international human rights is based around the question of universalism and human rights: are human rights universal? This is an important question, given that the human rights movement should be one that is indeed inclusive of different voices in the discourse. In this article, we will discuss the question of universalism and human rights, while also addressing topics such as cultural relativism and human rights, and also different human rights-based approaches. 

Universalism and Human Rights

If one looks at the international human rights corpus (and in particular, when looking at in international human rights documents and law), they might initially think that there is no discussion about questions of universality of human rights, or the cultural relativism of rights. For example, one of the first primary documents on human rights is called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Donnelly, 2007). In addition,  “International human rights are usually presented as universal rights…The 1993 World Human Rights Conference, in the first operative paragraph of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, insisted that “the universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question” (Donnelly, 2007: 37).

Yet, there continue to be challenges based on whether these “universal” rights are actually that (Kausikan, 1993), and also what individuals term “cultural relativism.” Because of these questions and complexities with regards to the international human rights movement, it is important to understand what it is that we are talking about when we say “universalism” and “cultural relativism.”

What is Universalism?

Universalism in human rights is the notion that rights exist for all human beings throughout time, culture, religion, gender, etc… These are rights that every human being, throughout the history of the world, should have. Many actors within the international human rights movement continue to stress the complete universality of human rights. 

What is Cultural Relativism?

Cultural relativists challenge the idea that human rights are a set of universal rights understood the same way over cultures and time. Instead, cultural relativism is specific to culture; different cultures have different understandings of what rights are, and that they themselves are able to dictate (through their culture, religion, etc…) what rights should look like within a society.

Often times, many attempt to advocate a “middle-ground” between “radical universalism” (everything is completely universal) and “radical relativism” (all rights are completely relative). In the section below, we explore this question of universal human rights further.

Are there universal human rights?

While we often use the term “universalism” in our discussions of rights, it has been argued that there are few rights that are viewed as universal without at least some point of contention and disagreement. As Donnelly (2007) notes, there is a difference between conceptual universality (where one would believe that “by definition, [human rights are] equal and inalienable[,])” and the idea that there are universal rights. He says that conceptual universality “…does not show that there are any such rights. Conceptual universal rights may be so few in number or specified at such as high level of abstraction that they are of little practical significance. And conceptual universality says nothing about the central question in most contemporary discussions of universality, namely, whether the rights recognized in international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Human Rights Covenants are universal” (38).

Individuals have argued whether there are universal human rights since the beginning of the modern-day rights movement, and arguably, for centuries prior. It is true that societies throughout the world and throughout time have held notions of what they believe to be “right”. Thus, there have been moral codes or moral laws in place. The question, however, is whether we–because we are human–have the same sets of rights within different societies. If we all agree that all humans have the right to notions of justice or humanity, then human rights can be a vehicle to ensure and protect said notions (Donnelly, 2007).

Politics and Human Rights

One of the direct challenges to the human rights movement has not so much been with the issue of universal human rights as an idea, but rather, that states and non-state actors from the West have used human rights (and the idea of universal human rights) to advance their own political agendas. As Bielfedlt (1995) writes: some have levied “the charge that such universalism [the notion that rights are universal for all human beings regardless of context] only conceals the global dominance of a particular culture–the culture imperialism of Western states” (592).

There are a number of critics that scholars have raised as it pertains to how many Western actors have used ideas of “universal human rights” as merely a way to advocate the rights they believe matter most. We have cited a couple examples below:

Savage, Victim Savior (SVS)

Professor Makau Mutua, in his article entitled “Savage, Victim, Savior,” argues that the human rights system has a historical bias that came out of colonialism. So, we have to be careful when we think the human rights system is universal, when the history is far from having had inclusive voices throughout its formation. To Mutua (2001), the new system, which centered on “the United Nations has played a key role in preserving the global order that the West dominates” (214). And while some have suggested that the non-Western global south did have an expansive role in the formation of the UN, he argues that this has not only been overstated, but also that these states have had little real power at the international organization. Thus, for him, the human rights movement is one that has been used to promote certain systems on others (with the attention primarily being on global south states that are not in Europe) (216).

Furthermore, according to Mutua, the human rights system is based on what he calls the “SVS” or savage, victim, savior metaphor. Mutua  argues that the savage is the actor who is carrying out the human rights violations. But more than that, the savage is not just the violator, but actually, what the violator represents, which is the culture of that society. If the state is committing the violation, the state is just the “empty vessel,” and the real culprit is the culture. This is how many in the West view the rights abusers. Mutua argues that while human rights abuses occur throughout the world (in Western and non-Western states), the “human rights discourse treats non-Western cultures as particularly problematic in this regard. For example, in its first report, the Women’s Rights Project of HRW [Human Rights Watch] focused on wife-murder, domestic battery, and rape in Brazil” without having that conversation about the same topics within the United States or any European state (221-222).

The victim is the innocent person/persons whose rights are being violated. As Mutua (2001) explains, this person is portrayed as helpless. This notion of being unable to fight for her/his own rights against a culture (through the state) that is committing these rights further plays into the narrative of the need for the “savior,” according to some Western actors. These individuals are portrayed as weak, uneducated, and without any power or agency to stand up for their rights. And rarely are they portrayed as white (Mutua, 2001: 231).

The “savior” is often viewed as the Western state or NGO, and often Christian, who is the actor that will come in to “save” the victim. Again, Mutua does not suggest that one should not help others gain and/or keep their rights, but the issue is when the West attempts to “save the others” while not only not helping their own populations, but also attempting to “save” them in a way that is aligned with their political goals related to what sort of system they want to see (which is a human rights and political system that they favor, often for their own interests). In their rush to help, they are doing so with an agenda, which they push “under the umbrella of universalism” (234). As Mutua (2001) writes: “Institutionally, saviors constitute a broad range of actors and interests which are driven by a belief in the redemption of non-liberal, usually non-European, societies and cultures from human rights abominations…” (237).

He argues that some actors within the human rights corpus are not genuinely willing to hear other perspectives on rights, nor are they open-minded about the idea that others can offer significant contributions to the human rights movement. As we shall see in a moment, this is a critique raised by other scholars as well.

Asia’s Different Standard

In 1993, Foreign Policy published a piece by Bilahari Kausikan entitled, “Asia’s Different Standard.” In the article, Kausikan talks about the increased relevance to human rights in international relations, and that state leaders were no longer able to do what they pleased within the borders of their state, but rather, that they are becoming more and more bound to these international norms. Kausikan argues that this has led to a re-examination of human rights by East Asian and Southeast Asian states.

There is a great amount of acceptance of documents such as the UN Charter, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by these states, and many governments have also built in human rights based language within their own constitutions. However, Kausikan argues that there are some human rights norms that states in Asia have disagreed with. More generally, “As countries in East and Southeast Asia position themselves more in the international human rights mainstream, they are trying to stake out distinct positions in line with their own cultures, histories, and special circumstances.” (26).

And while many states (In Asia and in the West) speak about human rights (while often failing to seriously place them at the forefront of domestic and foreign policies) (this is a failure of all of these states), one could suggest that states do raise some valid concerns when saying that they would like a rights-based system that is from within their cultural and/or religious traditions.

There is a concern that the human rights based system as we see it today is a Western-based one that centers primarily on civil and political rights, at the expense of socio-economic, and cultural rights. It is clear that the human rights movement is historically built on the powerful Western states creating a system (which included the United Nations, and also international economic institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization) that comes primarily out of what we understand to be “western” notions of liberal rights and also economic liberalism. Plus, others have suggested that some are concerned about the possibility that Western states have pushed the human rights system to limit economic growth of states in Asia and Southeast Asia (Kausikan, 1999).

Looking at the history of the human rights movement, many countries that were not a central part of the creation of the modern human rights movement are becoming more involved in the human rights based discourse. What this means is that they not only want to contribute their understandings of human rights, but that these ideas of rights may at times differ from the West. So, how the western states receive other ideas is very important for the improvement of human rights as a whole.

As Kausikan (1993) notes, it is important that the various voices are heard with respect, that the each actor does not see their own culture and position as superior to the other. Kausikan writes: “…[W]ill the human rights dialogue between the West and East and Southeast Asia become a dialogue of the deaf, with each side proclaiming its superior virtue without advancing the common interests of humanity? Or can it be a genuine and fruitful dialogue, expanding and deepening consensus? The latter outcome will require finding a balance between a pretentious and unrealistic universalism and a paralyzing cultural relativism” (32). Kausikan goes on to criticize the notion of this staunch universalism, saying that “The myst of the universality of all human rights is harmful if it masks the real gap that exists between Asian and Western perceptions of human rights” (32).



When trying to examine the question of universal human rights, we should recognize that there are many positions on the topic, not only those that question the idea of the “universal” rights as truly “universal” in agreement, but also those that believe there is a bias in the sorts of rights that are favored over other human rights. Continued stressing of civil and political rights over socio-cultural and economic rights continues to be a point of disagreement that shows how actors differ on the rights that they believe should be “universal.” Plus, there are others who call for less of a concentration on “individual rights”, at least when they take precedent over the health of the society as a whole (Kausikan, 1999).

Thus, it becomes all the more important that when trying to understanding and work towards a human rights system that can become universal, it should be done so in a way that is inclusive of various voices in the international community, rather than one dominated from a Western-based position. Some argue that this is more difficult for Western states since they “must internalize the reality of diversity in all its dimensions and acknowledge that, notwithstanding the existence of a body of international law on human rights, many rights are still contested concepts were a consensus of meaning is coupled with equally important, and perhaps unresolvable, conflicts of interpretation” (Kausikan, 1999: 39).

Again, this in no way suggests that cultural relativism should be an excuse that oppressive leaders use to justify their own human rights abuses. Rather, the goal should be to find ways to advance the human rights discourse in a way that includes different viewpoints (Kausikan, 1999).



Bielefeldt, H. (1995). Muslim Voices in the Human Rights Debate. Human Rights Quarterly. Vol. 17, No. 4, pages 587-617.

Donnelly, J. (2007). International Human Rights, Third Edition. Boulder, Colorado. Westview Press.

Kausikan, B. (1993). Foreign Policy. No. 93, pages 24-41.

Mutua, M. (2001). Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights. Harvard International Law Journal. Vol. 42, No. 1, Winter 2001, pages 201-245.

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