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Published on 28th August 2019

Can Human Rights be Classified as 'Universal'?

Human rights are privileges which every single person around the world is entitled too, and they are, generally, a universally accepted norm. The idea of human rights came in the period between World War I and World War II, after the massacre of millions of people led countries to realise all humans are born equal and should be treated as such. Nowadays, in our modern world, there are some arguments against the idea of universal human rights. An important point to make is that there are some people who are being denied their human rights, but this is extremely different to actually being against the idea of possessing human rights. Overall, however, societies support and try to endorse human rights as much as possible, so all their people can use them.

Jack Donnelley writes that “most of us today take human rights to be a normal and ‘obvious’ part of international relations”. Donnelley makes a good point, in that not everyone is aware of the origin of human rights, instead, we all just accept them and know that we have them to apply to our lives. The idea of human rights came about between the world wars. As Great Britain, France, Russia, the United States and China looked back at the war against Hitler, they realised they would not be able to justify it to their citizens because of how many people were killed, and so they came up with the idea of human rights. As Donnelley states, “the world watched – or, rather, turned a blind eye to – the genocidal massacre of six million Jews, a half-million Gypsies, and tens of thousands of communists, social democrats, homosexuals, church activists, and just ordinary decent people who refused complicity in the new politics and technology of barbarism”. This statement shows that at least seven million people were executed in Concentration Camps in Germany, and not much was done to try and protect or save these people. Following on from this realisation, the United Nations released a declaration in 1942 which stated that countries did fight back against Hitler, but they were fighting for their own people’s life, liberty and independence, along with their human rights, and that is why they were not able to protect the other people being killed.

In 1945, human rights were incorporated into the United Nations, and then in 1946 the Commission of Human Rights was created. Finally, on 10th December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created. The document consists of thirty articles which encompass all aspects of human life, and today it is still recognised as the most influential document on universal human rights.

  • Article 1 recognises that all human beings are born free and equal and should treat each other with love and respect.
  • Article 2 says that no one should discriminate against others.
  • Articles 3-21 recognise that everyone has rights to life, liberty, and security.
  • Articles 22-27 realise that everyone has economic, social, and cultural rights.
  • Articles 28-30 state that everyone has the right to ensure they have access to, and the ability to exercise, their individual human rights.

Technically, the document itself is not legally binding, however, “the Declaration describes itself as ‘a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations’”. In today’s world, countries have accepted human rights and usually try to offer them to people however they can.

Unfortunately, there are some countries and governments who refuse their citizens their human rights. The denial of human rights is different to being against human rights, because those who are not allowed to exercise their human rights often want to be able to, to build a better life for themselves and their families, but are not able to because their countries government prevents them from doing so. Nicholas Rengger says that human rights are widely used in world affairs, but there are still regular violations of them. This statement shows that most states accept human rights, but that there are people who have their rights violated depending on different factors such as where they live, or what type of government they live under. Rengger goes on to say that the rising powers of the twenty-first century … do not seem to have the same level of commitment to notions of human rights …”, which is in comparison to the older powers of the United States and England. This is noticeable if you look at any media source, as there are stories constantly appearing which show violations of human rights. For example, in Australia, if someone did not agree with the government, they could go and protest publicly outside the government building and they are unlikely to get in trouble. However, in a country like North Korea, if someone protested, or even spoke ill of the government, they would either be imprisoned or sentenced to death, as they are seen to be opposing the government. This is a violation of their human rights, as people have the right to freedom of speech and should be allowed to exercise it if they so desire.

One argument has been discovered which is against universal human rights. Rengger examined the work of Chris Brown, where Brown claims,“[Human rights] are the product of a particular kind of society, understood in a particular kind of way. They are therefore, by definition, not ‘universal’ unless the assumption can be made that the whole world effectively resembles this kind of society”. What is understood from this statement, is that for the idea of human rights to be universal, every country and society must be exactly the same, in terms of government, culture, religion, etc. This is because, according to Brown, human rights were created by people who formed the rights based around the particular society they lived in and the people they knew. This means, for example, the English people who helped design human rights, shaped them around the other English people they know, and the English society they lived in. However, the country of England - its government and society - is extremely different to the country of Brazil. This then means that not necessarily every single human right will fit into, or apply, to every country, because their governments, cultures, religions, and societies all differ vastly. Rengger finished up by saying that “… the lack of clear grounding for the universality of human rights remains a problem”. This then means, according to Brown and Rengger, that human rights cannot be classed as ‘universal’ because countries will always be different, and the rights were created only for one type of society.

Even despite Brown and Rengger’s argument, most of the world accepts the notion of human rights. They are relevant every single day and people are making sure they know exactly what their rights are and how they apply to their lives. Joseph Tucker, Benjamin Meier, Cecilia Devoto, Eva Szunyogova and Stefan Baral conducted a study which linked human rights to sexual health, and they state that “… human rights provide a path to realise the highest attainable standard of sexual health for all”. This path between human rights and sexual health that they talk about, is that human rights support the basic needs of people, and a basic need of people is to be physically healthy. According to them, human rights include the idea of sexual health because they are “… inherently important to human dignity and at the same time, instrumentally important to public health”. Dignity means having respect for yourself and what you have done, and so therefore links to sexual experiences. For example, if people are suffering from a sexually transmitted disease due to sexual intercourse but are unable to access doctors to treat their problem, then they are having their human rights violated, and they may also find their dignity is affected because they are not able to cure the disease. Article 25 states that everyone has the right to health and well-being, meaning they should be able to seek medical help and treatment for problems they may have. Tucker, Meier, Devoto, Szunyogova and Baral finished up by stating how “sexual health is thus seen as deeply embedded in the social and structural fabric of societies” and therefore, if it is that embedded in the fabric of society, then it is intrinsically linked to human rights because they are relevant every single day of people’s lives.

There is another case which supports not only human rights, but specifically human rights and its link to physical health. Earlier this year, Mohsen Farsad, Arman Rahmim, Simin Dadparvar, Jamshid Farahati, Siroos Mirzaei, and Abass Alavi wrote to the Nuclear Medicine Community about some issues in Iran, as they believe that the Iranian Nuclear Medicine Services was not providing enough medication for people who were ill. They went on to say that the raw materials which the company used to diagnose patients, was facing a shortage, and that there may not be enough material to continue making their pharmaceuticals. They state, “we strongly believe that lack of radiopharmaceutical materials for medical purposes is against basic human rights on health, which endangers patients to a great extent”, and they hope that the company will ensure that all patients in Iran have access to “better medical care” as it is a basic human right. What this example shows, is that there are even more abuses of human rights related to Article 25. However, the people who are not getting the medication, and therefore being denied their right to health and well-being, desperately want it, so they can get better. Clearly, this letter also supports the idea of human rights, as it was written to ensure the people of Iran have access to their rights and can exercise them by being able to see doctors and have medication.

An additional argument which supports human rights was recognised in 2010 by the United Nations. They realised that everyone should have access to safe drinking water and sanitation (HRSDWS). The document states that “access to water supply and sanitation services became a right that States must guarantee and cannot treat as charity or assistance. This right was recognised because if people do not have access to clean drinking and bathing water, they can get very sick, and can die. Under the new right, there must always be available water, and enough water for everyone. Also, there must be accessible toilets, which are safe, clean, and private, and they must have soap and bins for female hygiene products to be disposed of. The United Nations realised this was an important right every person should have because not everyone has access to clean and safe toilets or water. It is important to realise that if people are not able to use a toilet, or have fresh drinking water, then this denies their human right to an adequate standard of living and life. Having a toilet to use means that people have an adequate standard of living, because every home and public place should have clean toilets which anyone can use. Having fresh drinking water means people have life because every person needs water to live. The inclusion of the HRSDWS into the United Nations supports the idea of human rights universally, as it ensures that any person, wherever they live, can have drinking and bathing water, as well as a functioning toilet.

The final example which supports the idea of human rights universally, is in relation to gender-based violence. Garnett Russel and Julia Lerch said that “… in recent years, gender-based violence has become recognised as one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world”. For example, if someone is born a man, but wants to be a female, they may choose to dress in women’s clothing and wear make-up. If other people see this ‘woman’ walking down the street, but realise they are originally a man, they may not agree with this and may become violent towards the ‘woman’. Russell and Lerch’s research led them to realise that those who were being abused for changing genders or choosing a different gender to identify as, were being denied their human right to life and security. This is because, under the right to life, people should be able to live as they want, without fear of violence or ill-treatment because of their decisions. They went on to define gender-based violence by saying it is “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm …”. If someone is physically, sexually or psychologically harmed through violence, then this violates their human rights to safety and security. Russel and Lerch’s writings have shown how gender-based violence and human rights link very closely, as anyone who feels threatened or in danger is being denied their right to a feeling of safety.

This article began by examining how human rights were created, before looking at the rights themselves. It then looked at the one argument against human rights, which showed that rights may not be able to be classed as ‘universal’ because countries are so different, but the rights were created based around a particular type of society and culture. The piece then explored a few arguments and examples which show that human rights are a global idea, which most countries support. The first example showed the link between sexual health and human rights by saying that people have the right to life and being healthy, which includes their sexual health. The second example demonstrated that if people do not have access to doctors or medication, it violates their human right to health and well-being. The third example stated that it is a basic need and right that people have access to clean and safe drinking and bathing water, and that people need access to clean and maintained toilets, no matter where they live. The final example looked at gender-based violence to show that people have the right to feel safe and secure in their life no matter how they choose to live it. Overall, it is clear to see that human rights are regarded as a universal thing by the majority of the world, and while it is possible to find some arguments against them, most people support human rights as they exercise them in their everyday lives.


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NOTE: This article was written based on an assignment I did for my university unit Key Concepts in International Relations