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.

Conclusion  

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.