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THE QUEST FOR UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS
Nayeefa Chowdhury

The universalist discourse of human rights cannot be defended without assuming a metaphysical position concerning the sanctity and inherent moral endowment of humankind.

The dawn of the year 2006 has been marked by Australia’s Howard Government’s Orwellian "anti-terror laws", which have sought to violate human rights principles as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (U.D.H.R.) by the U.N. General Assembly. Examples include: prohibition of arbitrary detention (article 9), presumption of innocence until proven guilty (article 11), and right to privacy (article 12).

What will be the prognosis of human rights principles in the 21st Century? Perhaps the recent diplomatic furore surrounding the execution of the convicted Australian drug trafficker, Nguyen Tuong Van, in Singapore could not emphasise more clearly on the significance of ‘Human Rights’ in the modern world. Is endorsement of capital punishment a violation of Human Rights? According to Amnesty International, 91 nation-states have abolished the death penalty, while it is practised in 76 nation-states in the name of ‘right of self-determination’ or ‘sovereign choice’ of the country. Are human rights principles then relative? Or are they universal? Unless a normative judgement pertaining to the universality of human rights principles is made possible, there will always remain a perceived sense of double standard with regard to the protection of human rights, when it particularly comes to criminal tribunals.

In an increasingly interdependent world that is often referred to as a ‘global village’, nation-state sovereignty has gradually been weakened, necessitating an ultimate sovereignty to be delegated to a supranational body such as the U.N. The violation of human rights sanctioned by the state and society during World War II was among the key influential factors in the drafting of the U.D.H.R. in 1948. Since then, a number of international human rights schemes have been drafted, encompassing social, economic, cultural, political, and civil spheres. These rights commonly include: freedom of movement, religion and expression, freedom from torture, arbitrary detention, and degrading treatment, the right to life, an adequate standard of living, education, participation in cultural and political life.

However, the universalist discourse of human rights principles has been disputed by government officials and some scholars, particularly over the past 25 years. It is not the idea of the universality of human rights principles that has been challenged – the notion of human dignity is shared almost universally across nations, religions and cultural traditions – but rather the contents of international human rights schemes have been attacked as instigated with a cultural imperialist motive by the West. The credibility of this kind of accusation is debatable. One can argue that the modern notion of "rights-holding individuals" has largely been formed as a by-product of the conditions of exclusive rationalism and modernity, and as such, is not an inherent element of Western cultures. The history of pre-modern Western civilization holds an astronomical record of human rights violation. Religious "heretics" were commonly executed in the West and it was only in the 1950s that Harvard Law School began admitting women. The human rights instruments and covenants, as conceptualised in U.D.H.R. and other major U.N. conventions, exhibit common narrative standards based on the widest attainable consensus among nations with diverse cultural traditions, religious doctrines, and ideological systems.

The contents and scope of Human Rights have shifted in reference to geo-political conditions and this has left us wondering whether the universality of human rights principles could be effectively defended. Dr. Katerina Dalacoura, a lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, London School of Economics and Political Science, maintains that the universality of human rights principles can never be defended without assuming a metaphysical position with regards to the sanctity of human beings and higher order of the universe. Secular rationalism is a prescription for a failure to upholding a universalist discourse of human rights. The philosophical foundations of human rights principles deserve to be explored here. The modern-day notion of human rights has its origin in the 17th century Enlightenment philosophical thought, which can be traced back to the Natural Law in medieval Christian thought. Natural law was conceived as "the rational individual’s […inherent] guide to morality and ethics." Consequently, the Enlightenment advocated rationality as the only means of establishing an authoritative system for seeking knowledge and truth, divorcing knowledge from revelation.

The belief in the worth of human rationality as an absolute standard (e.g. Ayn Rand’s Objectivism) ultimately collapses once ‘revelation’ is separated from ‘reason’ in the quest for the truth and justice. If rationalism alone were deemed as an absolute standard in the search for truth, then one possible argument would be that an absolute truth, as such, does not exist. The proposition of human rationality as the sole authority over knowledge and truth, has led the world through the "inevitable progression" from the Enlightenment to Nietzschean tradition, and ultimately to postmodernism. The postmodernist view of ‘values’ and ‘truth’ is that they are nothing in themselves, but are relative to the circumstances (e.g. culture) one is exposed to, hence, a construct of one’s mind. Hence, ceases the feasibility of a universal declaration of human rights principles.

The theory of cultural relativism has stemmed partly from a disbelief in the existence of any normative moral standard. The rise of cultural relativism is a postmodern phenomenon, but originally it was a modern theory with its roots in the German Enlightenment. If there is no truth independent of humankind against which they can judge their values, then human beings can collectively deny the primacy of human rights (e.g. the practice of cannibalism cannot be considered immoral).

It is safe, therefore, to conclude that unless rationalism is anchored in a faith, in the transcendent nature of the universe and inherent moral endowment of human beings, the universality of human rights principles can never be defended. This inherent moral worth and endowment of humankind is precisely the essence of (de-Christianised) Natural Law, which is generally recognised as the historical and philosophical foundation of the modern notion of human rights. Once de-linked from Christian thought, the essence of Natural Law can be accommodated into both religious and agnostic worldviews. To cite an example here, the Islamic concept of fitra denotes ‘a common human ontology’ that doctrinally makes a part of the Qur’anic worldview. Thus, Natural Law and fitra are identical in essence.

The generally assumed position that human rights principles can only be upheld in secular societies is problematic. The belief in ‘rights-holding individuals’ is a value that is not contingent upon secularism. Nazi Germany was a secular state. North Korea, Uzbekistan and China are secular nation-states that hold disastrous human rights records. On the other hand, moderate Islamic political cultures in Jordan and Egypt account for much higher human rights scores, according to the research findings of Daniel Price – an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Studies at Kent State University in the U.S.A. – who has developed a numerical index of the relationship between political culture and human rights violation. Price’s research findings pertaining to a large sample of 23 Islamic countries and 23 non-Islamic developing countries provide evidence that Islamic political culture is not a determining factor in the appraisal of human rights practices and "[t]he poor human rights records of many Islamic countries are a result of authoritarian government rather than Islamic political culture."

In a nutshell, the belief in the sanctity of human beings – the principle that they, as individuals, hold inalienable rights above the nation-state monopoly or social hegemony, and not necessarily secular ideologies, are a prerequisite for sustainable human rights communities. The invariable route to effectively defend the universality of human rights principles, at an abstract level of ideas, is to assume a metaphysical position with reference to the inherent moral worth and endowment of humankind. Until this metaphysical position is duly regarded, the sanctity of lives of future Nguyens could not be universally defended.

© Nayeefa Chowdhury Jan 2006
An Australian citizen of Bangladeshi origin, Nayeefa Chowdhury holds a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering and Computing from Monash University in Australia and is currently studying for an MA at the University of New England. Ms. Chowdhury sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Islamic Guidance based in Japan and has contributed chapters to two books: Leadership and Unity in Islam (2002) and Muslim Communication (2005).

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