The universality of human rights

The United States of America’s Declaration of Independence famously contains the quote that “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. The concept of universal rights (or unalienable rights) can be, perhaps, dated to Britain’s Magna Carta, and the concept is still upheld by many today. It is not, however, completely accepted that human rights are universal. Debate still rages on whether all citizens should enjoy the same legal rights. Should convicted criminals be afforded the same protections as their law-abiding counterparts? Or do citizens lose their human rights when they commit certain actions? Meanwhile, others argue that human rights are not universal because they cannot be applied across the world. Societies vary and rights in one country are not necessarily rights in others. Culture and context matter.

Human rights for all?

In the UK, human rights have often attracted criticism when they have been applied to certain people and categories of people. One of the most notable examples of this was Abu Hamza. Hamza was a convicted hate preacher who was suspected of committing terrorist offences by the USA. The USA requested that Britain extradite him to face trial. The UK government agreed to this request, but his extradition was delayed by the European Court of Human Rights who required proof that he would not be treated inhumanely in the USA.

Hamza was eventually deported after two years of legal wrangling. However, this case and others like it have provoked public outrage in the UK. Many argue that terrorists such as Hamza should not enjoy the protections of human rights laws. This argument has been particularly popular among Conservative opinion formers and among the popular tabloid press.

Bright Blue recently conducted polling to establish the opinions of Conservative voters on the universality of human rights. We found that Conservative voters were significantly more sceptical of this universality than voters of more left-wing parties. When asked which of the following two beliefs is closest to their opinion “human rights should not be given to everyone all the time” (zero) and “all people have human rights simply because they are human” (ten), Conservatives select, on average, 4.9. In contrast, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters select 7.2 and 7.0 respectively.

Conservative voters were also sceptical of applying certain specified rights to certain groups. For example, our polling found that a minority of Conservatives thought the right to freedom of expression and the right to a family life should apply to convicted criminals (29% and 30% respectively), terrorists (8% and 10% respectively) and hate preachers (8% and 12% respectively). Most Conservative voters did, however, believe that the right to a fair trial should be protected for suspected criminals, foreign suspected criminals and suspected terrorists. This suggests that many Conservative voters believe some human rights should be treated as universal while others should be restricted to certain individuals.  

To an extent, most modern human rights legislation has taken account of these concerns. For example, both the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) contain both qualified and unqualified rights.  Indeed, the Human Rights Act only contains four rights that are considered absolute and can never be limited in any circumstance (the prohibition on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment; the prohibition on slavery; the right to a fair trial; and the right not to be charged or convicted of a retrospective criminal offence (i.e. charged for conduct which was not criminal at the time it occurred). All other rights can be limited in certain circumstances.

Cultural relativism

A second, more academic debate about the universalism of human rights surrounds cultural relativism. Many human rights that are recognised by international organisations, such as the United Nations, were theorised in the West, and, in particular, in Europe and the United Kingdom. Indeed, the ECHR itself is, in part at least, based on British common law. Some academics have argued that the Western nature of human rights provokes a tension between ‘universalism’ and ‘cultural relativism.’

Cultural relativism is the idea that a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on the context of the individual's own culture. In the field of human rights, this means that certain rights may be specific to a country rather than universal across all jurisdictions.   

Proponents of universalism have argued that cultural relativism carries a contradiction by setting universal human nature against relative human rights, despite the fact that these rights are based on this nature. This cannot hold in any fundamental way. Relativist theorists have responded that human nature is, in fact, not universal, but culturally relative and that society has an impact on the variety of human natures. Radical cultural relativists take this further and argue that if all rights were determined by social rules, there would be no human rights, in that simply being a human being does not endow one with any inherent rights.

Nonetheless, relativists have consistently failed to regularly identify any of the central human rights protected in the West that should not apply universally across the world. The right to liberty and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary violence make up a good proportion of western human rights legislation. But they are also fundamental needs of all humans no matter their culture. Instead, relativists are forced to highlight smaller fragments of western human rights legislation which they do not believe should be applied universally.

Relativists also argue that even if values are universal, the need for human rights is not necessarily also universal. Traditional rulers had their power and authority restricted by both “customary limits entirely independent of human rights” , administrative weakness, and technological limitations. In such an environment, some human rights could be irrelevant in that they were either protected through other mechanisms or were never under threat of violation. The modern state, however, is no longer constrained by these factors, and so universal human rights are necessary.


Most human rights are not universal or unlimited. Modern human rights legislation in the UK contains very few absolute rights and instead allows rights to be restricted in certain circumstances. Nonetheless, the human rights developed in the UK, Europe, and the West should be considered to be applicable to all countries, and they contain certain protections that should be afforded to all. 

Amin Kenji is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue.

Multiple Disadvantage: the case for a joined-up approach to women's policies

An estimated 1.2 million women in England alone have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both a child and an adult. For many of these women and girls, abuse is the start of a downward spiral. The unresolved trauma from what they have experienced can leave them with very low self-esteem and mental health problems. They may use drugs and alcohol to cope with what they have been through. They may become homeless. Thousands end up involved in prostitution or in prison. Many are mothers, and their children can go on to face the same issues of abuse and marginalisation. Nearly a quarter of girls in care become teenage mothers, and their children are much more likely to be taken into care in turn.

The technical term for what these women face is ‘multiple disadvantage’, or ‘complex needs’, but neither does justice to the layers upon layers of abuse, poverty, and inequality they have experienced throughout their lives. They need specialist support to help them deal with the full range of issues they face, and the abuse and trauma that so often underpins it, but too many are unable to access it. Women’s services struggle for funding and many existing mixed services, such as for addiction or homelessness, are dominated by men, which can be intimidating and sometimes unsafe for women. Often they do not have the expertise to respond to the specific issues women face and can even make bad situations worse, with women not listened to or blamed. The end result is women do not get the help they need.

Colette experienced sexual and physical abuse as a child, and had all three of her children, the first born when she was 15, taken from her care. Her addiction, homelessness and involvement in prostitution saw violence become an everyday part of her adult life too. It was only after building trust with Manchester Action on Street Health (MASH), a women’s organisation, that she finally felt able to start her recovery and begin rebuilding her life. Without proper support, women with experiences like Colette’s can move from one crisis – trips to hospital, contact with the police - to the next, at a great cost to themselves, their families and society as a whole.

It does not have to be this way.

The government is making some efforts to address some of the issues faced by women experiencing multiple disadvantage. For example, we hope the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill being developed at the Home Office will help to recognise and address the pernicious and long-lasting impact of violence against women and girls.

We keenly await the forthcoming Ministry of Justice’s Female Offenders Strategy as an opportunity to reverse the tide of vulnerable women ending up in prison cells. We hope it will acknowledge and invest in community support and women’s centres that have been shown to be so successful in preventing women offending. The Department of Health and Social Care has set up the Women’s Mental Health Taskforce, which as Director of Agenda, I co-chair with Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price, to tackle signs of a growing crisis in women’s and girls’ mental health.

These are all positive steps in the right direction. But they also highlight part of the problem. Women experiencing multiple disadvantage do not sit in any one government department. They cross Health, Justice, the Home Office, Education, Work and Pensions, and Local Government. This means policies that impact women experiencing multiple disadvantage, such as mental health, substance misuse, or homelessness are developed separately in their separate departments. And, unfortunately, when they are developed, they rarely consider the particular impact on women.

This needs to change and we need leadership and strategic joined-up thinking to make that happen. Agenda wants to see the creation of a cross-government approach to ensure that women and girls facing multiple disadvantage are getting the support and protection they need. Of course, at some point, we are also going to have to talk about money. Funding specialist services specifically for women and girls struggling with multiple disadvantage must be a priority. But this is not about blindly throwing more cash about – it is about strategic and effective spending.

Evidence shows that women-only services that take into account the specific issues women face, especially their experiences of abuse and trauma, can make a real difference. And they save money too. For example, modelling shows that an investment of £18m per year in the joined up support provided by women’s centres could save £1bn over five years. Yet such services struggle for funding and are constantly under threat. This is partly because funding tends to come through different departments, commissioners and authorities separately, with a focus on tackling one issue at a time. This is short-sighted and inefficient, not to mention often ineffective – and means services doing good holistic work are missing out on valuable funds.

To tackle this, we would like to see the government taking a lead by creating a central funding pot to help women and girls facing multiple disadvantage address the whole spectrum of their needs. This is not about asking for more money, (although that would be extremely helpful), it is about using existing money efficiently and effectively for the benefit of all. More holistic, gender- and trauma-informed services could make a lasting difference to hundreds of thousands of women, their families and society.

Too many women and girls in the UK live in chaotic, abusive, and unhappy environments. Ensuring they get the support they need when they need it makes economic sense, but it makes moral sense too. Colette shows that with the right support women can turn their lives around. They all deserve the chance to fulfil their potential.

Katharine Sacks-Jones is the Director of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk. 

The promise of a new dawn: the prospect of Turkey embracing liberal values without embracing the Western liberal order

Over the course of the past several years, and to the surprise of most international observers, Turkey has turned its back on the West, eschewing the path it had been pursuing towards liberal, democratic values for the previous half a century. It has curtailed its relationship with the EU in favour of an alignment with Russia and Iran. With a demagogic and powerful populist in charge who has overseen purges of the nation’s military, bureaucracy, academia and media, the human rights prospects for Turkey appear bleak. However, in recent months a new political party has been launched which promises to change this by making Turkey a truly liberal and democratic country.

 A new party

Launched just over two months ago, the so-called Good Party has adopted a centre-right platform and – befitting its name – a slogan declaring “Turkey will be good”. It boasts pluralism, democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and nationalist values as its core principles.

Its leader is Meral Aksener, a former Minister of the Interior who has become a particularly vocal critic of President Erdogan since his successful and widely criticised bid to secure greater executive powers via a national referendum. As a national politician with two decades of experience and right-wing credentials, Ms Aksener is seen as a likely contender for the presidency in 2019.

In her first address to her followers, Ms Aksener advocated liberal principles and cited the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe advisory body pertaining to constitutional law. She argued against media censorship and in favour of democratic institutions.

Interestingly, the Good Party has also stated that it will uphold human rights, not as a favour to Western powers, but as a good in themselves. Such an attitude stands in contrast to conventional wisdom which has reasonably interpreted Turkey’s liberal orientation as being part and parcel of its relationship with the Western international order, particularly the EU but also the United States.

It is worth considering whether Turkey can indeed embrace liberal values without embracing the nations and international organisations which constitute the liberal world order.

The relationship with the EU

Until recently, Turkey’s relationship with the EU seemed likely to blossom into a successful bid for membership.

Among the first to become a member of the Council of Europe in 1950, Turkey applied to join the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), in 1987, before becoming an associate member of the Western European Union five years’ later. It was in 2005 that Turkey applied to join the EU in what has proven to be a long, tortuous process with no success yet in sight, despite optimistic projections that the process would end within a decade.

Indeed, while the Leave campaign during the UK’s EU referendum vote warned of Turkey’s impending accession to full EU status, experts have pointed out that this was and remains unlikely in the near future. Many have argued that the EU’s door has only ever been “half open” to Turkey. For instance, as recently as 2016, only 15 of the 35 negotiating 'chapters' (the different policy fields containing current EU rules which must be adopted by national candidates) had been 'opened' and are therefore being discussed, and just one had been provisionally 'closed', or agreed upon. Other countries – such as Montenegro, Croatia and Iceland – have made significantly more progress despite initating formal bids at similar or later times than Turkey.

Despite a greater willingness on the EU’s part to work with Turkey over the past couple of years to stem the migrant flow into Europe, the chances of Turkey’s bid succeeding appear remote. A key factor of this stagnation is, of course, Turkey’s worsening human rights record. Indeed, the EU has recently proposed cuts to Turkey's EU membership aid on the grounds that “Turkey is not respecting freedom of speech, freedom of expression, human rights and is drifting further away from European democratic standards”.

Looking at the broader picture of Turkey’s relationship with the West, Kemal Kirişci a senior fellow at TÜSİAD and director of the Brookings Institute’s Turkey Project, argues in a new book that Turkey’s Western alignment has been at the root of the country’s historical diplomatic and military prowess. Presenting his argument in the Brookings Institute’s podcast, he argues, in line with conventional thinking, that Turkey’s relationship with the West is strained by the former’s desire to pursue an alternative alignment.  

The alternative alignment

Dr Kirişci contends that to some extent the Christian democratic vision of Europe championed by key European players such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy made Turkey more uneasy about joining the EU. This served to embolden Turkey’s pre-existing desire to look more Eastward and regional both in terms of her geopolitical alignment as well as her espoused values.

For example, a term now often deployed to refer to the perceived Turkish alignment is the ‘Iran-Turkey-Russia axis’, while such a configuration is often linked to Turkey’s growing religious conservatism manifesting itself, not least, in promoting an education system which omits Darwin’s theory of evolution and forcefully promotes tenets of Islam.

Certainly, Turkey is often characterised as a country torn between pursuing a secular, modern Western style state – an endeavour which defined much of the twentieth century, from Atatürk's Reforms to post-World War Two geopolitical manoeuvring – and asserting itself as a regional power more inclined to the East and capable of establishing a neo-Ottoman Empire or commanding the Islamic world.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Turkey has fluctuated in its geopolitical alignments. It has also fused East and West together. Writing for the New York Times, Behlul Ozkan from Marmara University, labels the then-Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s pursuit of a pan-Islamist empire an “Imperial Fantasy” and argues that, paradoxically, this pursuit has been grounded in Western political theories which predominated before 1945, such as the German notion Lebensraum, ‘living space’.

The internal tension between East and West, then, does not simply manifest in Turkey in dichotomous alignments and value systems, but also manifest in fusions. In this respect, Mr Halacoglu’s assertion that Turkey can pursue its own path, upholding Western values on its own terms is a significant – but often overlooked by those who see Turkey’s human rights record as defined by the prospect of EU membership – feature of the Turkish national and cultural character.


The growth of illiberalism and attacks on democracy in Turkey took much of the world by surprise. Should the Good Party gain some traction, Turkey could surprise the world again. Yet the extent to which a reformed Turkey would internationally align itself with Western nations is up for debate.

Geopolitical realities in which the US remains a superpower and Russia and her proxies are increasingly assertive might render a sort of third way difficult to achieve. Yet, the country which bridges East and West stubbornly seeks to remain in a category of its own.

Joel Collick is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue