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Arguments against the universality of human rights


By Paul Ewans


Paul is a Trustee of the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust. In this article, he sets out the remarkable attempts to create opt-outs from the Universal Declaration of Humans Rights and provides decisive evidence against the myth that the UDHR is just a Western construct.


The primary purpose of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to limit the power of sovereign states in favour of the rights of the individual citizen. Ironically, the reluctance of many governments to accept this proposition when the UDHR was being drafted provided clear evidence that the Declaration was indeed badly needed. An early problem during the drafting process concerned a proposed right of individual petition. All the imperial powers of the time – Belgium, France, Great Britain, The Netherlands and Portugal – feared that their colonial subjects would use such a right to protest about abuses of human rights by their colonial administrations. Even though the abuses were clearly blatant and wide-ranging, this defence of national self-interest succeeded and the right to petition was removed from the draft.

"...other communist countries took the same line, arguing that the rights of assembly and asylum should not be granted to fascists and Nazis."

Other opponents of specific provisions in the draft were less successful. The Soviet Union complained that the proposals violated the sovereignty of nation states, ignored the citizen’s obligations to the state, and failed to recognise the importance of combatting fascism, Nazism and racial hatred. The other communist countries took the same line, arguing that the rights of assembly and asylum should not be granted to fascists and Nazis. But their real concern was over the right to freedom of movement (Article 13). They knew that large numbers of their own citizens would emigrate if they were free to do so. So all six communist states abstained when the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the final text.

"Saudi Arabia objected to the rights to freedom of belief and expression, asserting that no one should be free to contradict the Quran."

Saudi Arabia also abstained due to its opposition to equal marriage rights (Article 16). The Saudi delegate maintained that it was forbidden for a Muslim man to marry a polytheist or infidel, and that no Muslim woman could marry anyone outside the faith because no Muslim could subordinate themselves to a non-Muslim. Moreover, it was unacceptable for a woman to initiate divorce proceedings. Saudi Arabia also objected to the rights to freedom of belief and expression (Articles 18 and 19), asserting that no one should be free to contradict the Quran, and the Quran itself insisted that apostates must be killed.

"The South African delegation was particularly concerned that 'human dignity' should not be identified as a universal right"

South Africa was the eighth and final country to abstain, as many of the proposed rights were wholly incompatible with the system of apartheid which was being created by its new white supremacist government. The South African delegation was particularly concerned that 'human dignity' should not be identified as a universal right, and they also tried to have the word ‘equal’ excluded from Article 1 – ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’, but they barely received a hearing.


Other countries raised issues important to themselves, but made no progress. Sweden sought clarification at a late stage about its laws requiring mandatory blood tests in paternity and drink-driving cases. Egypt wanted the draft to make clear that the proposed social and economic rights could be exercised only insofar as the economic conditions of each state permitted, and Brazil wanted to add the words ‘All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God’, but received no support for this at all. However, the Indian delegate Hansa Mehta had a remarkable and hugely important success when her determined campaign to replace the term ‘All men’ with ‘All human beings’ finally succeeded.

"...the final drafting committee of the UDHR included representatives from China, India, Pakistan, Burma, the Philippines and Siam together with delegates from nine Islamic nations, six communist countries, many South American countries and four African countries."

The drafting committee was aware of the danger that the text would represent only western ideas and values. They thus consulted charters of rights from all around the world and took advice from experts from many nations. And the final drafting committee included representatives from China, India, Pakistan, Burma, the Philippines and Siam together with delegates from nine Islamic nations, six communist countries, many South American countries and four African countries. Even so, the UDHR has been attacked as being an instrument of neo-colonialism, and many have rejected the idea of universality in the name of cultural identity, self-determination of peoples, or national sovereignty. And some still claim that the UDHR is no more than an attempt to impose a particular set of ideas on the world as a whole. The American Anthropological Association is notable among those who have upheld cultural relativism, claiming that all cultures are equally valid because values are not absolute, but relative to the culture in which they are found. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to human rights must therefore be mistaken. (An article by me arguing against this form of relativism was published in Humanistically Speaking in September 2022).


Despite these objections, the fact remains that we can identify some rights as being universal because human beings are similar to each other in important ways. It is our common humanity which makes the recognition of universal human rights both possible and necessary.


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