The universality of the UDHR
Anthony Grayling is doing a series on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is easy now, as it always has been, to think that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fine-sounding efflation of rhetoric, or, conversely, to think that it is a piece of Eurocentric Enlightenment imperialism whose highminded pronouncements – for example, about the equality of men and women – do not please all members of all cultures.
Indeed. Highminded pronouncements about rights and equality of anyone are bound to fail to please some members of all cultures because there are always some members of cultures who want to be able to exploit and dominate other people. The UDHR is intended to be an obstacle in the way of that project.
Grayling says as much in the next installment.
[T]he aim of the first three articles is to erect a presumption of rights as a stockade around individuals to shield them from arbitrary depredation. It is to guard them against becoming prey to the unscrupulous and the more powerful, against hostile majorities, and against tyrannical government. To the sceptic who asks, “Who says that individuals have these rights?” the argument of experience about the minimum required for a chance of human flourishing, and the vividly recent history of circumstances in which millions were regarded as not having any such rights, is a definitive reply.
I don’t say that indivduals actually have the rights, but I do say that we should all act as if they do – which is much the same thing as ‘a presumption of rights as a stockade around individuals to shield them from arbitrary depredation.’ A presumption of rights; that’s all; the sceptic can relax.
The UDHR was devised as an exhortatory document, a statement of aspirations; its preamble says that it is a proclamation of “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, and enjoins UN members states and their citizens to “strive … to promote respect” for them. So although the emphatic rhetoric of the articles makes them sound legalistic and marmoreal, their force is primarily moral.
Sure. A declaration of intent – and one that we had all better adhere to.
But there are dissenters.
One of the standard objections to the UDHR is that it is a western Enlightenment invention, and that its claim to universality is spurious. Few things refute this allegation so swiftly as thoughts of torture and slavery…Doubts about the UDHR’s universality were voiced early, and not at first by people in colonised and developing countries, who welcomed the UDHR with open arms (it was the big powers who were suspicious of it, as threatening to interfere with the exercise of their hegemony), but rather by bien pensants in the western world itself. In 1947 the American Anthropological Association voiced concern that ideas of human rights are ethnocentric…
Because of course highminded pronouncements – for example, about the equality of men and women – do not please all members of all cultures. Good that anthropologists were and are alert to the injustice of expecting unpleased members of cultures to treat other people as rights-bearers, isn’t it.
In any case, cultural bias is not always a bad thing. Those cultures that condemn genital mutilation of girls are justified in condemning the cultures that practice it, because they can make a case that members of the latter cultures would be bound to accept in other respects…[S]o much for relativism. And that is an important point, because Articles 4 and 5 are an explication of Article 3’s “life, liberty and security”, and show that it applies without borders.
I wonder if we can make a deal – we’ll give up SUVs if you give up FGM. A win-win situation.