It is not for the West alone to define universal human rights

Communities that take a different world view should also have the opportunity to construct their own genuinely rooted forms of coming into modernity

TOPSHOT - General view of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council during the presentation of report by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, on March 13, 2018 in Geneva.
Syria enters its eighth year of war on March 15, 2018 free of the jihadist "caliphate" but torn apart by an international power struggle as the regime presses its blistering reconquest. / AFP PHOTO / Fabrice COFFRINI
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It was 12 years ago, in March 2006, that the United Nations General Assembly created the Human Rights Council, a body which regularly undertakes a "universal periodic review", or UPR, of how each member state of the UN fulfills its human rights obligations. It is an interesting instrument, which nevertheless raises interesting questions: should we all measure human rights obligations in quite the same way?

The very notion of a universal human rights regimen isn’t one that escapes debate in the academic world. By its very name, it claims universality – in other words, that the entirety of the world’s population has suggested and confirms that there is a single measure and yardstick.

The UN's yardstick isn’t quite like that, however. The UPR upholds the basic idea of treaty and contract – in other words, it reviews states in accordance with international obligations and commitments that those states have actually made themselves. In that regard, the objection that these states are being unfairly judged by standards they didn’t agree to has less potency. Those states signed up to those treaties, after all.

In a few weeks, another round of periodic reviews will take place. And the reviews are quite interesting when they do happen, because it is not simply states that go to Geneva to defend their record. Civil society groups go themselves, usually to criticise their countries’ records and sometimes with harsh consequences. Indeed, a number of Egyptian human rights groups in 2015 opted not to participate at all in the UPR, claiming they faced threats. The UPR is a place where countries can defend their reputations or reveal their inner machinations to the world.

But there is also an interesting aspect to the UPR when NGOs and civil society organisations sometimes go to defend their states’ records, based on what they consider to be inalienable cultural or religious rights. One of the themes, in that regard, is Islam and faith-based Muslim NGOs engaging in an interesting discussion and exchange with the UPR and the council about what rights are indeed universal.

It’s a rather intriguing topic and on a recent trip to a non-Arab, Muslim-majority country, I had long discussions with one such Muslim NGO about the quandaries that they faced. On the one hand, they were adamant that the modern human rights discourse is simply not universal. Rather, it emanates from a particular geographical and historical context, which is broadly, if not completely, western, following the aftermath of the Second World War and the atrocities therein. As the NGO's argument went, it might be a good set of principles but why should it be considered to be universally valid? Is it not based on a certain world view and philosophical approach to human history – one that might be good but hardly rooted in universal consensus? Why should Muslim communities all around the world accept such a discourse uncritically and do they not have their own world views that they should rely on?


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It’s an interesting discussion to be had and not without merit. Historically, indeed, the international human rights discourse is rooted in a modern, western experience, even as it has evolved. Those communities that admit a world view which is not western and have different ways of looking at the world should also have the opportunity to construct their own genuinely rooted forms of coming into modernity. That is surely their right, as it is the right of any authentically free people to do so. But that is really just in theory – at least for the time being.

It's only in theory because there are two important provisos. The first is that for the above argument to be taken seriously, there have to be genuinely top level engagements with what modernity entails, what its problems are and what one's own historical heritage can teach in that regard. That requires deep and thorough intellectual interventions, which also come from a profound educational endeavour – and far too often, universities and systems of learnings in parts of the world outside the West are found lacking. That is not a question of genetics or culture. It is a question of investment and creating the environment for intellectual inquiry. Until that changes, the exploration of modernity from within other world views is going to be rather meagre indeed. It really ought to happen sooner rather than later but that requires genuine investment and commitment.

There is a practical consequence of taking an objection to so-called western human rights seriously, irrespective of how true or false the claim is. All too often, autocrats stand on the pedestal of nationalistic jingoism and declare that they are not bound by these rights so that they can abuse their own people and citizens without having to worry about being held accountable.

As we look at the universality – or the lack thereof – of human rights instruments and the discourse underpinning them, it behoves us all to remember what the practical consequences are likely to be if such instruments suddenly disappeared. The damage is not likely to be in the benefit of a better alternative, informed by an enlightened and intellectually consistent world view. Rather, the most vulnerable are likely to be the targets of yet more abuse. We must all do a lot better than that.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London