OP-ED: Having Faith in Fantasy: Why Universalism is the Future of International Human Rights

Source: 14th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

By Alisha Saxena
Contributing Writer

In the midst of extensive debates on how to actualize the power of international human rights law in the global community, two factions of thought have emerged: universalism and relativism. They differ not only in their definition of human rights, but also in their methodology to develop and execute human rights policies. As indicated in its name, universalism stresses that human rights are universal, in that they can and should apply to every individual in the world regardless of religious, cultural, or other differences; thus, its proponents believe in the power of international human rights legislation.


Relativism, on the other hand, believes that those religious, cultural, or other differences make it near impossible to develop a common understanding of human rights without ignoring the values of certain groups, thus the power of creating human rights legislation should fall in the hands of states. Universalism has faced much criticism for failing to reduce Western influence in the drafting process, include all cultural interests, and ensure that the “subscription” of a member state to international human rights doctrine actually translates into concrete implementation. Despite these robust criticisms, I believe that there is still a case to have faith in fantasy. Though advocates of relativism criticize the universalist perspective for its limited and skewed power to enforce human rights, I argue that universalism is still superior as it vests power to multiple institutions, offers a voice to the feminist movement, and acknowledges its imperfections whilst making an effort to diplomatically unite the world. 

Before discussing the selling points of universalism, it is first important to delve into the arguments of its critics. Relativists lament that universalism encourages greater hypocrisy for states with atrocious human rights records, in that there is no way for international laws to diplomatically overrule state sovereignty to keep those states accountable for their actions. In essence, international law is trivial if it fails to ensure that all individuals are empowered and protected by these laws. They use this reasoning to further complain that international law remains an aspiration and does not represent reality. However, the reality of universalism was given legitimacy to in Knowing the Universal Declaration of Rights, as former United States Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon notes that it foresaw every problem a state might face, including “power politics, its dependence on common understandings that would prove elusive, its embodiment of ideas of freedom and solidarity that would be difficult to harmonize, and its vulnerability to politicization and misunderstanding”.

Professor Debra DeLaet, in her book The Global Struggle for Human Rights, further tackled the critique that state sovereignty trumps the power of universal human rights by remarking that, even rhetorically, states are constrained by human rights norms as they feel compelled to use such language in their discourse and justifications to the international community. Now that universalism has been established as a formidable opponent to relativism, one can witness how it succeeds in ways for which relativism could never produce alternatives. 

One bold assumption of relativist theory is that the state, or certain leaders, can or will do what is best for all their residents without the need for outside assistance or accountability; universalist theory creates an accountability measure by placing the responsibility on all individuals and institutions within society to uphold human rights. First, it is important to note that many leaders in the international community have either directly instigated or have purposefully ignored the persecution of minorities within their states. This persecution is widespread and is even witnessed in territories that are not classified as having egregious human rights records- this is clearly seen through the strength of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, as a response to the prevalence of white supremacy, racism, and police brutality.

Relativist theory falls short in protecting individuals from persecution, not only because states may not wish to protect certain minorities, but also because even if states were given complete authority, they would not be able to protect all individuals from persecution even if they wanted to. When drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, requests by the socialist bloc to increase state power were rejected because responsibility of upholding human rights falls on all individuals and institutions, and not the state alone.

Some forms of persecution are caused by individual and community stigmas, and only requiring the state to uphold human rights values would disregard placing a necessary responsibility at the individual level to treat others with respect. Holding the states solely responsible to mitigate human rights violations at the individual and community level is impractical, particularly for larger, decentralized nation-states whose duty to serve larger populations decreases their ability to prevent human rights violations at a community level, and thus renders them powerless in preventing these community crises from spiraling into a statewide human rights crisis. Thus, universalism is superior to relativism in recognizing the need for a multiplicity of institutions, or “every organ of society,” to uphold human rights rather than placing overbearing expectations on the state when it lacks a comprehensive reach, and maybe sound intentions, to ensure the well-being of all its residents.

Relativism also fails in being inclusive to women, as it encourages cultural and religious norms that call for the inequitable treatment of women to take precedence over human rights legislation, which causes women’s rights to be undermined. Universalism, on the other hand, promotes the concept that all human beings deserve human rights, and thus, does not take an exclusive approach to women. Though, it is important to note that universalism does fall short in regards to promoting postmodern feminism, as a majority of international laws continue to focus on only men and women.

The prominence of binary language in universal laws has caused many supporters of the movement to be disillusioned by international human rights law as a whole. Yet, some documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, do make references to “the human family” in an effort to show recognition of the gender spectrum and the multiple identities within it. Given that states frequently use language from the International Bill of Rights in their justifications, making large scale amendments to reflect these demands can encourage inclusivity of gender identifications. 

Contrary to relativist understanding, it is important to note that the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were aware of its imperfections. Though the Committee was pleased to see commonalities in human rights, they recognized that the feasibility of this declaration was not necessarily certain, and that they understood that “we agree about the rights, but on condition no one asks why”. The system of the committee, with five permanent seats for the “great powers” and thirteen rotating seats for other nations, exposes the inequitable conversations which occurred when formulating this binding, unprecedented document.

Roosevelt’s approval of this system was indicative that he agreed with these disparities in representation as it amplified the voice of the United States. However, Professor DeLeat notes that the current political climate has increased the potential for more equitable conversations about human rights, because, as mentioned before, many states use the language of international human rights laws in their public rhetoric. Undoubtedly, this supersedes state-obsessed relativism, which is content with state authority supervising human rights at the cost of various oppressions being condoned. 

Yes, the Universal Bill of Rights is aspirational, but there is nothing preventing it from becoming a reality. It is my belief that the state of international human rights is often dependent on its leaders, and with more diverse voices beginning to break their way into positions of leadership, there is hope that more groups will be directly represented. If adjustments are made and faith is maintained, the fantasy of universalism may become a reality- we just have to believe and act on it.

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