The International Writers Magazine:Comment
QUEST FOR UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS
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 Australias Howard Governments
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
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 individuals [
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 Rands
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 ones 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 Quranic 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. Prices 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.
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
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