When we were talking about development and aid in the last lectures, we always ended up also discussing and questioned the existence of something called “universal human rights”.
Does a “catalogue” of human rights exist, that would be overall acceptable and valid for all human beings? Are those rights, especially those written down by the UN universal? Or is it a simply a new way of Western dominance over the periphery, a new way colonialism, where the west tells the developing countries “what is the right thing to do and what is not”?
A lot of criticism of the concept of universal human rights is valid and understandable. Representatives from developing economies especially criticize the narrow definition of human rights and the focus on western ideals such as individualism (Skegg 2005: 668). Those concepts are often contrary to the set-up of non-western cultures and societies. Furthermore it is argued that the proposed universal human rights are not meeting many countries needs and taking into account their “real” situation, especially when looking at boarder rights such as adequate income, access to education and health care (ibid.).
However, I also see another reason, why many states and societies reject the existence of universal human rights. I argue that rejection of the existence of universal human rights especially occurs in countries with highly patriarchal society structures. In those societies, violence against women is used to subordinate them, to keep the traditional patriarchal society structure intact and to secure the dominant role of men. Accepting that there is something such as universal human rights that include gender equality and strengthen women’s rights would question the role of men in those societies. It would threaten the dominant position of men – and now speaking from a realist perspective: who likes to give up power?
However, interestingly enough the right to life and physical integrity can be found in more or less all religions and cultures – even in non-western cultures and those, who actively treat women as second class citizens.
Therefore even if a universal catalogue of human rights can be questioned and controversially discussed, I argue that at least one norm can be taken as widely accepted: the right to life and physical integrity. And based on this right is not acceptable that violence against women still exists, is justified and made invisible (Bovarnick 2007). Therefore, before overall rejection that universal human rights exist, we should look beyond the criticism for the motivation behind the rejection and question, whether it is because those norms are western norms and not universal or whether they might be a threat to those who are currently in power…
Bovarnick, Silvie 2007): Universal human rights and non Western normative systems: a comparative analysis of violence against women in Mexico and Pakistan. Review of International Studies,33, pp. 59-74.
Skegg, Anne-Marie (2005): Brief Note: Human rights and social work : A western imposition or empowerment to the people? International Social Work 2005, 48 (5), pp. 667-672.