The concept of human rights is not new or modern; yet gained traction on an international scale after the Age of Discovery (early 15th century to the 17th century), philosophical movements such as The Enlightenment, organisations, movements and treaties, namely The Geneva Convention, Civil Rights Movements and The United Nations. Human Rights have been incredibly controversial – particularly in our increasingly globalised world – which begs the question as to whether human rights are, or will be, universally achievable. This essay seeks to discuss this question with reference to the performance of the United Nations in pursuit of this goal and will explore the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the limitations and disadvantages of the Universal Periodic Review system, as well as cultural incompatibilities stemming from the declaration.
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In 1948, The United Nations General Assembly accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights put forward by a drafting committee composed of individuals from the USA, China, Lebanon and others (Brown, 2016). The appearance of those from different nations aiding in the drafting process of the declaration is incredibly useful due to the fact it should permit the discussion of cultural differences and how they relate to the articles within the declaration – it is perhaps due to this that the United Nations (UN) were able to label their moral recommendations as ‘universal’. It was accepted by 48 of the 58 member-nations with eight abstaining and two failing to vote. The declaration set out 30 articles, encompassing political, civil, social and cultural rights for every individual regardless of religion, ethnicity, personal opinion, language and sex among others (The United Nations, n.d.). This declaration allowed for the geographical expansion of the first-ever human rights declaration, The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man by rendering many of its points universal. It also expanded upon The Four Freedoms – of speech, expression, religion, from want and fear – created by Franklin D Roosevelt (Roosevelt, 1947). As stated by Gordon Brown (2016), former UK Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education, “the Universal Declaration…is a milestone in the history of human interactions and the cause of human rights.” This can be shown through the number of international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch whose goal is to ‘fight human rights abuses worldwide’ and ‘pressure those with power to secure justice’ through following the UN’s declaration (Amnesty International, 2019) (Human Rights Watch, 2019). Therefore, if we take into account the international acclaim the declaration has received as well as the fact that its creation was not solely from one culture, country or civilisation, it could be considered truly inclusive and more importantly, universal.
On the other hand, it could be said that the United Nations have made a terrible error in how human rights violations are brought to light and investigated. The Human Rights Council (HRC), which is responsible for addressing human rights abuses and offering advice on them, introduced the ‘Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR) in 2007 – just one year after the creation of the council (The United Nations Human Rights Council, 2019). The Periodic Review commands nations – whether they be members of the UN or not – to conduct reports on and subsequently receive evaluation of and discuss their human rights procedures every four years (Nickel, 2017). However, the human rights framework of each state is discussed by The Working Group which comprises 47 members of the HRC – some of which commit human rights abuses themselves which increases the risk that the abuses committed by the state under review will be minimised or concealed by HRC members for personal or economic gain. Moreover, the limited role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and experts in human rights, who would be independent evaluators, could be considered to aid HRC members in the concealment of violations (Moss, 2010). A further issue here is that if we consider the commonly held view of nations being primarily responsible for committing human rights violations in international law, then we may also consider the possibility that nations may fabricate a report on their country in order to conceal abuses taking place – especially as there are no independent evaluators and UN Special Rapporteurs are only permitted to enter a nation in order to evaluate violations at the discretion of the state in question. An example of this would be China. China’s UPR states, in section B sub-topic 6 (Freedom of Speech and of the news media), “The Chinese government protects citizens’ freedom of speech…” (Government of the Peoples’ Republic of China, 2018). Despite this claim, it has been discovered that citizens do not have complete freedom of speech. While criticism of China, political leaders and policies are not censored, internet posts which advocate for or against a protest or in favour of or against policies or leaders face almost certain censorship (King, et al., 2014). Additionally, in section B sub-topic 3 (Prohibition of torture), the report claims that “The Ministry of Public Security…is eradicating the use of torture to extract confessions”. Throughout China’s UPR no outline is provided as to how confessions are being extracted without the use of torture and there is no deadline as to when use of torture for this purpose will be eradicated completely. This indicates that China is simply attempting to superficially satisfy the UN’s recommendations to avoid sanctions. Furthermore, The UN expressed concern regarding ethnic minorities’ right to cultural life and religion (Human Rights Council, 2018). In its UPR, China made no mention of the human rights violations committed against the Uighur people of Xinjiang (a region of western China) yet numerous reports have unearthed re-education camps for reforming Muslim Uighurs and Imams and “an attempt to weaken Uighur identity” (Clarke, 2010) which is a clear violation of their right to cultural life and freedom of religion. These examples prove that the way in which the Universal Periodic Review, implemented by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, is carried out (the violating state reviewing itself) is deeply flawed and inhibits human rights from being truly universal.
Furthermore, one could argue that the UN’s vision of human rights can never become truly universal due to cultural incompatibilities. Despite the drafting committee involving members with different cultural backgrounds, these were a minority – with only two nations being of a non-European-majority population or control. Furthermore, members from China (Peng Chun Chang) and Lebanon (Charles Malik) were both educated in the United States which suggests any unique cultural input may have been lost or disregarded. The declaration faced ideological opposition from the USSR which favoured a Marxist approach and collectivism, while other members strongly believed in individualism and individual rights. Due to these disputes, Soviet representatives appeared nonchalant and did not fully participate in debates or meetings and ultimately, abstained from signing the declaration alongside other Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) states such as Byelorussian SSR and Ukrainian SSR (Johnson, 2003). Moreover, the USSR was not alone in its abstention. Saudi Arabia abstained citing religious differences – and while many other predominantly Muslim nations voted in favour, Saudi Arabia believed that the declaration violated Sharia (Islamic Law) with its representative asserting that the declaration itself was more focused on ‘western culture’ and was “at variance with patterns of culture of Eastern States” (Abiad, 2008). This is supported by Glen Johnson’s claim that while there were references to Islam or Confucianism, “the general focus on European traditions…prevailed” (Johnson, 2003). Ultimately, it is no surprise that other human rights declarations, such as the Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004) and The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990) came into existence. These documents focused on human rights and their relation to Islam in particular and were more in-line with the views of Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia which opposed the protection of civil and political rights – which were seen as ‘western values’ – as well as religious freedoms (Sarfaty, 2009). It is clear that many believe the articles set out in the declaration by the UN focus mainly on ‘western’ values, beliefs and ideologies and are therefore, culturally and ideologically incompatible outside of Europe and countries with strong links to these states as well as states which are ideologically-aligned with Europe (USA, Australia for example) which implies they shall never be truly universal. However, as Linda Hajjar Leib indicates “Cultural relativism is a convenient concept for undemocratic governments…it equips them with a ‘legitimate’ excuse to control and intimidate” (Hajjar Leib, 2010). This shows that it may not be for cultural reasons that human rights are not universal, but rather reasons of power and control, suggesting that universal rights may be achievable in the future.
To conclude, the United Nations have so far not succeeded in achieving universal human rights. It could be said that this is due to three reasons: a lack of foresight regarding its drafting committee which caused an overepresentation of European views, the process in which it reviews human rights records which unfortunately, affords nations an opportunity to deceive through the Universal Periodic Review it carries out on itself, and due to rejections of the declaration stemming from cultural incompatibilities or intolerance of the ‘western’ views it promotes. However, it is this declaration that has been so highly praised as a milestone in the name of Human Rights and it could therefore be that universal human rights may be achievable in the future should repressive regimes and traditionalism cease to exist as suggested by Hajjar Leib – though this would be a utopian ideal and is therefore, unrealistic which ultimately implies that human rights shall never be truly universal.
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