Human Rights

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An Essay discussing whether or not Human Rights are universal or whether different cultural and ethical positions should be taken into consideration.

Submitted: September 24, 2008

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Submitted: September 24, 2008



Are Human Rights universal or should different cultural and ethical positions be taken into consideration?


This essay will argue that Human Rights should be universal, however currently they are not due to mitigating circumstances that need to be addressed. Also the question of whether religious beliefs and inherent laws to certain countries mean that Human Rights shouldn’t be universal. The General Assembly of the UN states that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.” (UN, 1948) Although the UN states that Human Rights are a standard of living that everyone should be able to live by, things such as sovereignty and political will make this a difficult feat to achieve.


In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the USA, “the US administration betrayed the cause of the protection of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms in the name of national security and counterterrorism.” (Ramsay 2006) The US did this through the torture of many ‘terror suspects’ and also portrayed in the photos taken from gaol’s in Iraq with the American soldiers standing with pyramids of naked prisoners as their ‘prize’. This is an example of how at the moment Human Rights are treated as being different depending on your culture and ethical differences. The US are a nation that has pushed for human rights to be universal in the past, and through trying to achieve some of the basic human rights for people in their own country and others has violated them themselves. Through the use of Guantanamo Bay where ‘terror suspects’ can be kept unconditionally and be tortured to try and get information, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib in Iraq the US violates a multitude of basic human rights, and does not comply with the Convention Against Torture and other cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The conventions defines the term torture and bans torture absolutely “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war, internal political instability or any kind of public emergency, must be invoked as a justification for torture” (UN, 1994) Even with these conventions and the UN and other non-governmental organisations, nations are allowed to do what they want because of State Sovereignty and a lack of political will from other countries around the world to stop these human rights violations, and a lack of political will to make human rights universal and not based on cultural and ethical views and beliefs.


A Case in Suadi Arabia in 1996 where 2 British nurses were arrested for the murder of an Australian colleague, and eventually sentenced to death for one and flogging for the other, is a prime example of how an inherent legal system that has been passed down in Saudi by the Sharia, the body of Islamic religious law, violates Human Rights. In this case, the sentences were not followed through with because the women were British and there is a clause in the Saudi legal system to prevent Westerners being punished under the Saudi regime (Pennell, 2006). However these are the sentences that the Saudi people are subjected to and they are clear violations of Human Rights and although “the Saudi government defended its legal system by asserting a different frame-work of rights, legitimized by the Sharia, and claimed that the imposition of western cultural values onto an Islamic society denied its cultural and religious identity” (Pennell, 2006) the Human Rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are basic rights that have been documented as far back as the Bible in Christianity and the Qur’an such as “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (UN, 1948). These rights outlined should therefore be accepted by all nations including those of deep religious beliefs because they are rights with which most people can relate and are not unfair.


State sovereignty means that any nation state can refuse to abide by international law, and no nation state has to sign to any treaties or agreements if they do not feel inclined to. This means that any nation can do as they please, and the UN will only intervene if asked by the government of the nation or if it is deemed that International peace is at risk. In many cases where human rights are being violated, the world is powerless to stop these violations of basic human rights due to lack of political will and state sovereignty. An example of this was in Rwanda when a mass genocide and violation of Human Rights occurred and the UN and major western powers did not act quickly enough or in the right way to prevent these attacks. “The international community did not reinforce the existing UNAMIR mission in the first weeks of the genocide. Instead, the UN Security Council chose to draw down its modest force to near irrelevance after the death of ten Belgian troops” (Brunk 2008) So instead of increasing troops when there was evidence of unrest and the death of UN troops the UN decreased its status. Then again when the attacks did occur the UN and the major western powers did not react quickly enough and meant that the Hutus were able to undertake the attempted genocide of the Tutsis. The lack of political will in this case stopped the ability to have universal Human Rights sustained, however if different cultural positions were considered when Human Rights are in question, acts like this would be allowed to go ahead completely and no intervention would be taken.


Sudan was in a way, a repeat of the Rwandan crisis when in late 2003, fighting had been allowed to go on for a year with limited response by the UN and western nations. In march 2003 the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights reported an “ostensible effort by the Sudan government to purge Darfur of African tribes” (Brunk, 2008) and even after this the international and the UN response was weak and it wasn’t until December 2003 that the issues in Sudan were addressed. Even though all throughout 2003 there were clear Human Rights violations as noticed and stated by the High Commission for Human Rights. Even in NGO circles there was not a great deal of urgency when Sudan was concerned expected to be because of the restrictions the Sudanese government placed on foreign journalists and NGO workers. “Early investigative efforts by the few international NGOs aware of the crisis were frequently thwarted by the Sudanese government’s travel and visa restrictions” (Brunk, 2008) these restrictions impeded any investigations, and organisations such as Human Rights Watch did not even report on the situation until March 2004. This was due to state sovereignty which meant that no organisations, or other nations or the UN could get into Sudan to check on the Human Rights violations that were occurring.


Is membership in a community the source of basic rights, or is an individual invested with all basic rights by the mere fact of being a member of the human species. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.” (UN, 1948) The cases set out above show that even though this has been stated in this Declaration it is not followed, and it is hard to ‘enforce’ a view of Human Rights on nation states such as Saudi Arabia who have their own beliefs. Disagreeing with the Delaration are communitarians who “consider that individual rights are constructed within specific communities defining rights and duties of their members in particular ways. According to such a view, the main function of rights is to maintain links between members of a community and to preserve their lifestyle.” (Eisgruber, Sajo, 2005 pp 85) This view of rights says that Human Rights cannot be forced on anyone and they are not something which is inherent to everyone at birth, rather something that people make and share when they are forming communities. The concept of jus cogens however suggests that everyone has inherent rights and this concept is used in law making and law enforcing in cases of genocide and slave trading and use of slaves. Jus cogens suggests that there is a “body of ‘higher law’ of overriding importance” (Danilenko) that everyone needs to abide by. The concept of jus cogens fits in with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying that everyone deserves Human Rights, and that they should be Universal.


When considering having universal Human Rights it needs to be considered whether ‘forcing’ these rights on nations that have a different cultural or ethical belief system is the right thing to do. And if doing so how it would be done, “here, it becomes, in part, a question for the adopting culture whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.” “Intellectual persuasion, as a means of extending human rights, is, of course, the feature that intellectuals have an understandable tendancy to emphasize.” “Intellectual roots of changing cultural concepts can hardly be underestimated” (Eisgruber, Sajo, 2005 pp 8, 9). To change the cultural concepts of nations that do not agree with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a tough feat, but should be what happens.


Human Rights should be universal to create a better world to live in for all humans. If cultural and ethical positions are taken into consideration more acts of genocide and inhuman killings will occur. In today’s society where Human Rights are trying to be achieved universally situations arise where genocide occurs or nations still have death penalties or floggings as punishments which are clear violations of Human Rights. Other circumstances stop Human Rights from achieving universal status including political will and sovereignty because as discussed, these can stop the UN and other forces from stopping cases of Human Rights violations such as the Rwanda and Sudan genocides.

Reference List

Brunk D. 2008. “Dissecting Darfur: Anatomy of a Genocide Debate” International Relations. Vol. 22, no.1, pp. 25-44

Danilenko G.M. 2003 “International Jus Cogens: Issues of Law-Making” European Journal of International Law (

Eisgruber C.L, Sajo A. 2005 “Global Justice and the Bulwarks of Localism: Human Rights in Context” Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Boston

Pennell C.R. 2006. “Law as a Cultural Symbol: The Gilford Murder Case and he Presentation of Saudi Justice” The International Journal of Human Rights. Vol. 10, No. 2, pp 121-142

Ramsay M. 2006. “Can the Torture of Terrorist Suspects be Justified?” The International Journal of Human Rights. Vol. 10, No. 2, pp 103-119

The General Assembly, 1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (

The General Assembly, 1994, Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment ( )

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