ARE UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS REALLY UNIVERSAL?

By William “Will” Unger
Staff Writer

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was viewed as a remedy for the atrocities that plagued an increasingly globalized world in its time. Although many nations of the world voted in favor of the declaration, this idealistic document has failed to act upon and maintain world peace and order. In order to preserve our human rights, nations must adhere to the principles set forth in this convention and punish those who violate them. However, it is not that simple. Some argue that no document or governing body has the right to dictate what is “right” and “wrong;” cultures and values differ from region to region and we cannot simply persecute offenders when globally recognized cultural relativity exists. Contrary to the ideals and viewpoints set forth in the UDHR, in nearly every nation, there are struggles with human rights violations and we must focus on a new approach to remedy these issues.

State sovereignty is the notion that a nation-state is self-sustaining and thus has the right to control their country however they like within their borders. Whilst this is true, it is “not… an unlimited power to do all that is not expressly forbidden by international law.” (Pellet) The UDHR expresses this directly in Article 30: “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” As a globalized world, we appear to have a problem in determining what is right and wrong due to differing cultural values and long-lasting practices. The fruit of the problem ripens when a nation-state does not deliver concrete consequences for persons found guilty of violating human rights and, as a consequence, the international community calls for change through a build-up in awareness.

A heartbreaking statistic released by the Times of India indicated that one bride is burned to death every hour. In India, a law passed in 1961 that was intended to prohibit the usage of dowries in marriage but this has not proved to be an effective remedy. The growing trend in this nation is called “dowry murder”, in which a husband murders a prospective wife should her family be unable to pay the husband enough for her hand in marriage. It is evident that some husbands use the dowry as a way to attain a large sum of cash with no intent to foster a loving marriage. Little is done to stop these atrocities from happening because they hide under the guise of “tradition.” What could be seen as a terrible atrocity continues daily, and the conviction of murderers lies at a mere 33.6% (Thekaekara). Yet, this still continues and there is little media coverage of what is an increasingly violent treatment of women.

Another case study shows that within the Middle East, there is a large proportion of honor killings that are protected by the hand of “sovereignty.” A clip from CNN.com shows a Pakistani man calmly admitting to the murder of three women. The murderer was a man named Muhammad Ismail, and he explains to a reporter that his reasoning was really quite simple: his wife refused to please him, so she was no better than a prostitute and should be killed. He continued his reasoning by saying that all men should commit murder for honor in this situation, and that even if he gets hanged, he was doing the right thing. In Pakistan alone, 943 women were killed in the name of “honor” in 2010. Human rights lawyer Zia Ahmed Awan explains, “victims’ families in Pakistan are also at a disadvantage because ’honor’ killings often take place in male-dominated communities where women are often viewed as property with few rights to defend themselves and little access to legal aid.” These murders do not only take place in Pakistan, however, as “honor” murders have been linked to the United States, Palestine, the United Kingdom, Iraq and elsewhere.

Both crimes appear to have one common root: police simply do not enforce these murders as crimes because of a complex set of cultural values that justify them. A manual of Islamic law by Al-Azhar University states, “retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right,” further stating that “not subject to retaliation. . .is. . .a father or mother for killing their offspring, or offspring’s offspring.” (Geller) This serves as an example of the sensitivity that some have towards the murderers themselves, justifying it through customs in the Middle East. In contrast, Palash R. Ghosh of the International Business Journal writes, “the practice [of honor killings] has nothing to do with Islam. Rather, it is rooted in ancient tribal custom where the entire family is represented by the morality, chastity, and proper behavior of its women.” Through a case-study of Turkey, where honor killings appear to be a large and increasing problem, the journal studies penal law and cultural values to discover the root of the issue.

In Turkey, Penal Code 82 grants leniency in the case of honor killings and includes a lesser sentence than a typical murder, ultimately failing to curb this patriarchal violence. The study seems to lean toward the fact that the history of honor killings is representative of a regional history of patriarchal rule, where it was very important to keep women chaste to preserve a good reputation and image of a town or state. For instance, the areas with more Kurdish people did not see a rise in the amount of honor killings despite the fact they were widespread throughout Turkey. While much of the world would expect this practice to be common to the Turkish Kurds because of their belief in Islam, it is their regional practices and ideals that have disbarred honor killings from becoming a cultural norm.

States have the right to autonomy, in which they can determine their own policies and act upon them accordingly (Pae). Indeed, the UN Charter disallows use of force against a nation’s sovereignty under most circumstances. This creates an issue in the balance of power and state behavior, as a state could potentially do what it pleases to optimize benefits while disregarding the best interest of other nations in the name of sovereignty. Unfortunately, this means that a legislative body such as the United Nations potentially has less control and enforcement over what other states are doing and cannot make an effort to interdict human rights violations. On the issue of sovereignty and the ideal of imposing punishment for human rights violations, the nations of Belgium, Italy and Libya concurred that sovereignty is used as “a wall leaders can use as an excuse to violate the rights of their citizens,” further noting that the international community has a responsibility to protect accountability (UN News Centre). Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, also states that the UN should have an umbrella of protection that covers all who need it. According to the UN, countries should not only recognize human rights violations but should have “counter measures” to maintain peace. Human rights are only upheld when there are concrete laws in place and strict enforcement to disallow unlawful behavior within a state.

To put an end to this ever prevalent and growing issue in human rights, some argue that the controversy must simply catch on and reach the youngest generation. In an age where nearly everyone uses a cellphone, Twitter and Facebook, people could ideally make a stand against violations. However, this is not as simple as it sounds as many of these issues are cultural in nature and cultural tradition is passed from generation to generation. Women are almost encouraged to stay out of these affairs and consequently their voice is often missing. In fact, matters seem to be getting worse. For instance, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, recriminalized adultery and called upon women to birth at least three children (Ghosh).

One viable approach to end these human rights issues is to use Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to both educate the peoples within a nation of abuses and liberate women who are being suppressed. Although this approach is often effective, in recent times abuses related to murder have only increased. It appears dismal, but in order to respect national sovereignty and autonomy, it almost seems that the only way to change the larger underlying issues is through internal politicization. In the cases stated before, both honor killings and dowry murders, women are not treated the same way as they are in the westernized world based on traditions and cultural beliefs, and thus require a shift in thought aided by the international community.

It appears that the best way to approach these violations of human rights, especially against women, is not quite concrete. First, law enforcement and religious authorities should be educated in prevention of rights violations and prosecution. Again, NGOs are a positive force if used correctly, and should thus be used in educating and inspiring peoples, especially females, that they do indeed have fundamental human rights. Indeed, these rights seem to be indicative of the values of Europe and the Westernized world, however, there is a consensus that these rights are to be upheld and protected in the international community. Action needs to be taken so that more lives are not jeopardized. In order for this action to become reality, resources are necessary. Shelters should be set up for women who are in danger, and strict warnings or sanctions should be imposed upon nations who fail to meet standards for enforcing human rights. Change must also be internal, as international values should permeate all cultures and thus create intra-national change as well. In the present day, the world has become complex and globalized and with it comes a difference in ideals and behaviors. “Right” and “wrong” are subjective to cultural values and ideas, but altogether, they have been established in the new world order and should ultimately be strictly adhered to.

Works Cited

Chesler, Phyllis. “Worldwide Terms in Honor Killings.” Weblog post. Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings. The Middle East Quarterly, 2010. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Gayathri, Amarutha. “Honor Killings, Dowry Deaths, Witch Hunting Have Social Sanction In India: UN.” International Business Times. International Business Times, 5 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Ghosh, Palash R. “Honor Killings: An Ancient Ritual in a Modern World.” International Business Times. International Business Times, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Pae, Joom. “Sovereignty, Power, and Human RightsTreaties: An Economic Analysis. Northwestern University Journal of Human Rights, Feb. 2007. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Pellet, Alain. “”State Sovereignty and the Protection of Fundamental Human Rights:an International Law Perspective”: February, 2000, Pugwash Occasional Papers.” Pugawash Online. Pugawash Online, Feb. 2000. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

“Responsibility to Protect Principle Must Cover All Who Need It, Ban Says.” UN News Center. UN, 23 Sept. 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Thekaekara, Mari M. “A Bride Burnt Every Hour: The Horror of Dowry deaths.” New Internationalist. N.p., 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Photo by art_makes_me_smile

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