Jack Frank Sigman, MA
Buckingham Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies
The assertion that democracy and human rights are universal concepts hinges on the definition of “universal concept,” the definition of human rights, and the relationship between democracy and human rights. The basic de nition of “concept” is thought; “universal” indicates worldwide acceptance. Human rights can be simply de ned as those rights which are possessed by the sheer fact of being human (Hayden 2001, 4; Yimga n.d., 2). However, the exact composition of these rights is controversial.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (United Nations Human Rights 2018), enumerates the generally accepted human rights. According to the United Nations (UN), “the UDHR is universal in its content and application” (Center for Human Rights 2018) and although not binding law, “constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community" (UNAC n.d.). In the UDHR, Article 21.1 states, “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives” (UNHCR 2018). Basically, Article 21.1 explicitly implies that democracy is a human right and, as assumed with all of the rights enumerated in the UDHR, a universal concept. However, the premise that every right,including democracy, listed in the UDHR, are actually rights, must be discussed.
Yimga (n.d., 1) advances the notion that while human rights are a universally recognized ideal, there is no really agreed upon standard set of rights, as with most UN conventions, compromise is the only way to achieve political agreement. Going further, Natsios (USIP 2002, 4) implies that not all human rights are equal. Langlois (2003, 992-3) notes that although the universality of human rights is taken for granted, the concept is not truly universal. Hypothetically, Langlois (2003, 993-4) continues, without endorsing the theory, discusses the notion of separating the promotion of human rights from the promotion of democracy as a method of advancing human rights without the co- promotion of liberal democracy as exemplified western values which are rejected in many parts of the developing world. The theory is that the co-promotion of an already rejected liberal democracy, with human rights, causes the rejection of human rights. Indeed, the legitimacy given human rights by virtue of UN promotion, ahead of democracy, makes even authoritarian states give acknowledgement of human rights abuses (Langlois 2003, 996-7). Halperin seemingly agrees that the promotion of human rights and democracy must be balanced (USIP 2002, 3). However, Halperin seems more concerned with the promotion of democracy, which seems counter-productive in the promotion of human rights.
Continuing with the theme of democracy not being universally accepted, Chopra and Hohe (2004, 244-5) discuss the ramification of forcing democracy on a population that has little understanding of the political legitimacy inferred by elections, in which case, when election results are not favorable to certain groups, violence ares resulting in the reemergence of human rights violations. Others, such as Kishore Mahbubani (Financial Times 1999), believe that Asia can do without western style democracy as it disrupts civil society, and that Asian culture is not enamored with such Western values, However, Mahbubani does believe that “economic progress will fuel demand” (Financial Times 1999) for democracy. On the other hand, Amartya Sen (1997) argues that there is no such thing as “Asian values” and that the immensity of the land mass, which contains 60% of Earth’s population, makes even such a notion as “Asian values” an improbability. While acknowledging that differences exist, those differences are not enough to indicate that the basic concept of human rights and democracy do not exist in the various Asian cultures, furthering the position that the concepts of human rights and democracy are universal.
Shifting from the concerns of an Asian culture to the concerns of Islam, An-Na’im (2002, 316, 318-9) finds that reliance on Shari’a, the Islamic code of law, formulated through interpretation of the Quran and the Sunna, is used to refute human rights as being inapplicable to women and non-Muslims. However, An-Na’im believes that the Quran can be interpreted in a fashion that can be acceptable to the vast majority of Muslims proving the applicability of such rights for all, thereby bringing the Islamic world into human rights compliance.
The African Union, while also dealing with Islam, is concerned with cultural mores that affect the application of human rights. Gawanas (n.d. 141) reflects that, while not opposed to human rights legislation in most African states, African culture still discriminates against women and the battle to end those discriminatory practices is routinely seen as an attempt to reinstate the control of the former colonial powers.
Finally, Tenson (2001, 379-80), dealing with “cultural relativism,” indicates that human rights standards vary among cultures and that even the very meaning of the rights enumerated in the UDHR vary among cultures. While Tenson disagrees with the concept of cultural relativism (2001, 381-2), possibly for political reasons, it still appears to be a valid theory. As such, it stands to reason that not every political body accepts that all of the rights enumerated by the UDHR are truly rights. Taylor (2001, 410-411) deals with the specific wording of the UDHR, in that certain terms have distinctly different definitions in different cultures. With different definitions comes different meanings and thus no sense of specific human rights as a universal concept.
In conclusion, the hopes of the many who seek world peace and stabilization, through the advancement of human rights and democracy throughout the world, will likely be frustrated as the lack of a common language and common definitions, and therefore a commiserate lack of common acceptance of those rights, will slow that advancement for years to come. While the concept of human rights and democracy may be a universal, acceptance is not universal at all.
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