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Are Human Rights Still Universal?

- Abstract

Five years after the Revolution of 1989, the idea that certain basic and inalienable human rights constitute the moral and political patrimony of all human beings—a claim presumably vindicated by the Communist crack-up and by the democratic transitions in East Central Europe, Latin America, and parts of East Asia—is once again under attack. The nature of this new critique of “universal human rights,” the venues from which it has sprung, and the difficulties the West has had in handling it are interesting in themselves. They also tell us a lot about the correlation of moral and intellectual forces in world politics in the aftermath of the cold war.

In November 1994, for example, an international Christian-Muslim Consultation on “Religion and Human Rights” met in Berlin. The conferees, who included the Vatican’s chief staff specialist on Catholic-Muslim dialogue, senior figures from the World Council of Churches, and prominent Muslim clerics, public officials, and legal scholars, issued a report calling for a reconsideration of the basic human-rights instruments in international law. Why? Because these documents—preeminent among them the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—arose “out of a historical experience whose framework is primarily secular-humanist.”



About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).