Commentary Magazine

Are Human Rights Still Universal?

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.”

Seventeen months earlier, the UN-sponsored World Conference on Human Rights, meeting in Vienna, had also done serious damage to the notion of universal and inalienable human rights. The conference’s official declaration failed to articulate clearly such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press; instead, it managed to affirm a “right to development” (which, in practice, means drawing-rights on Western treasuries for third-world incompetents or despots) and a “right” to third-world debt relief. The Vienna declaration also condemned toxic-waste dumping as a human-rights violation, thus putting Love Canal in the same moral category as the Sudanese officials who are crucifying Christian tribesmen for their religious convictions.

The Vienna conference and final report were, in turn, influenced by the April 1993 Bangkok Declaration: one prominent expression of an assertive agitation against the notion of universal human rights carried on in recent years by numerous East Asian diplomats and statesmen hailing from countries as diverse as the massive People’s Republic of China, medium-sized Malaysia, and the micro-state of Singapore. This curious congregation of Communists, modernizing Muslims, and capitalist Confucians has insisted that the “universality” of human rights is a Western imposition on cultures with different moral standards and social traditions, and thus different understandings of the relationship between individual liberties and public order. On this analysis, Western insistence that legal proprieties such as habeas corpus are matters of basic human rights is an act of moral and cultural imperialism to which other cultures cannot be expected to kowtow, international agreements notwithstanding.

Perhaps the most articulate exponent of the East Asian critique is the Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, who has taken the argument a step beyond multiculturalism. Thus, Mahbubani has flatly stated that “many Western societies—including the United States—are doing some major things fundamentally wrong,” and that among those errors are the West’s “fundamental assumptions about its social and political arrangements.” On this reading, the political philosophy of Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and the institutional arrangements to which it has given birth (which include intimidation of the international press and public eugenics campaigns) are not just morally equivalent to the political philosophy and constitutional order of the American democratic experiment; they are superior.1

Finally, there is not just theoretical but ample empirical evidence that in the post-cold-war world, the idea of universal human rights has struck shallow roots. This is perhaps the most depressing (and frightening) aspect of the crisis in the former Yugoslavia and the utter inability of the European democracies to put a stop to vicious ethnic bloodletting in their own neighborhood. European parliamentarians do very well at adding new “rights” to the various charters churned out by the Brussels bureaucracy. But they have exhibited a pusillanimity unseen since the days of Neville Chamberlain in the face of the real-world challenge to basic human rights posed by the sundry miscreants in the torture of Bosnia-Herzegovina.




At a first, realist, glance, all of this may appear to be mere froth on the boiling kettle of international social, economic, and political life. Surely, some will argue, the new information technologies, the fusion revolution in energy, and the manipulation of human genetics will have more to do with the medium- and long-term future of humanity than the political-philosophical speculations of Singaporean septuagenarians or Iranian experts in Islamic law.

But a second glance should suggest, even to foreign-policy realists, that there are profound dangers in these latest attacks. For the gravamen of the new anti-universalism (especially in its East Asian form, which may be the most politically potent of the mix) is that there are no universal human rights because there is no single human nature, and thus no universal moral law to which appeals across cultures can be made. But that, in turn, means that there can be no serious international discussion about the shape of the world’s future: for if there are no transcultural moral norms to guide the creation of whatever institutions of world order might be possible at this stage of human political evolution, then we really are living in a Hobbesian environment where all are, inevitably, at war with all. And if we would like to see what such an environment looks like, even among putatively civilized people, we need only glance at Sarajevo.

So what does today’s “anti-universalism” amount to? Some of the current rhetoric and diplomacy is, of course, little more than a rationalization for despotism by authoritarians comfortable with their power and intent on maintaining it. At least a few proponents of the new East Asian critique fall into this category. Although the arguments have been tarted up philosophically, that hardly suffices to disguise the essential hypocrisy involved.

Still, it would be an error to dismiss the new attack as nothing more than self-serving political claptrap. For there are other, deeper currents of influence at work.

In part, the debate over universal human rights is a reflection of the stress caused by the modernization of economic and social life in traditional societies—or in societies recently under the jackboot of authoritarianism or totalitarianism. The churnings of market economies and the personal freedoms associated with democracy not only disrupt age-old patterns of family and community; they can also set in motion dynamics of personal behavior and interpersonal interaction that are radically incongruent with the moral meanings by which people have lived their lives, organized their relationships, and sustained their local communities for centuries. In places where the abrasions of social change are felt most acutely, it can make a kind of sense (however twisted) to blame all of these dislocations on Western notions of “human rights.”

This displacement of blame becomes particularly problematic when accusations of “Western imperialism” can be linked (however tenuously) to a living religious tradition, as in both the Confucian and the Islamic variants of the new critique. To be sure, the use of “secular humanism” in the report of the Berlin Christian-Muslim conference was historically clumsy; after all, the intellectual and moral roots of the Western human-rights tradition antedate “secular humanism” by millennia. And one need not pay the Stalinist gerontocrats in Beijing the honor of suggesting that they are motivated by ancient Confucian insights.

But if one makes the effort to think past the more lurid formulations of Islamic activists and neo-Confucian autocrats (not to mention anti-Western Christian ecumenists), it is possible to see in them an expression of a fundamental fact of international life: namely, that, contrary to the expectations (and in some cases the fervent desires) of Western cultural elites, modernization has not resulted in widespread and universal secularization.

And this, in turn, should serve as a wake-up call to Western analysts and policy-makers, who for far too long have ignored the many roles—some of them quite positive—that religious constructions of reality play in international life. When Eleanor Roosevelt led the drafting committee that produced the 1948 Universal Declaration, she may have imagined that the world of the late 20th and early 21st century would have “grown” beyond religion. But that is most certainly not the case; and this fact ought to bear heavily on the arguments of anyone committed to a universal view of human rights.

The new critique should also be understood as a result of intellectual and social decadence in the West. One need hold no brief for Singapore’s authoritarianism-with-a-capitalist-face to concede that Kishore Mahbubani is right to criticize the social pathologies of contemporary American life: skyrocketing rates of illegitimacy; the lethal triad of drugs/crime/homicide; mediocre educational accomplishment; disintegrating families; the welfare plantation. Nor need one deny that these pathologies are, in part, a reflection of the triumph in public policy (and Supreme Court jurisprudence) of a certain construal of “personal autonomy” as the end-all and be-all of liberty.

True, there is no necessary connection between classic American civil rights and political freedoms and the current condition of Detroit, or South-Central Los Angeles, or the South Bronx, or large parts of the nation’s capital. But there is also no burking the fact that the social decay of the contemporary United States has made it far more difficult to sustain the case for our legal-political system (founded as it is on certain universal human-rights claims) against critics whose societies combine rapid economic growth and widespread prosperity with public order.



Also coming home to roost today are the intellectual and political errors of the 1948 Declaration, and the gross overreaching of the human-rights establishment within the UN system in the years since. By listing vast numbers of social goods as “human rights,” the Universal Declaration helped set the foundation on which many of the new critiques now rest. Or, to get down to cases: when the Universal Declaration put the “right” to “periodic holidays with pay” on a legal plane with the fundamental human right of religious freedom, it blunted the moral cutting edge that the assertion of inalienability has had since the days of Thomas Jefferson.

Moreover, the endless piling-up of lists of “rights” that followed the Universal Declaration—in instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (not to mention such tracts for the times as the sundry international “conventions” on racial discrimination, discrimination against women, and the rights of children)—invited the suspicion that, if everything was a “human right,” then nothing was, in fact, a human right in any serious sense.

The UN tradition of lumping civil rights and political freedoms (i.e., what most Americans understand by human rights) together with “economic, social, and cultural rights” intensified this basic conceptual confusion. An important role here was played by the proto-cold-war politics that distorted the drafting of the Universal Declaration between 1946 and 1948; as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has observed, the “second category” of rights (economic, social, and cultural) was “designed to please states that denied their subjects the first” (civil and political rights).

But however one traces its pedigree, the Universal Declaration did introduce a contradiction from the outset: for civil rights and political freedoms are claims that individuals and voluntary associations hold against state power, while economic, social, and cultural “rights” are, in most cases, benefices distributed (or withheld) by the state.

Thus the Universal Declaration’s laundry list left unsettled the question of the source of rights (the person? the state?) even as it avoided some crucial real-world questions of modern political organization. For instance, does not a state’s recognition of certain inherent and inalienable civil rights create social and political conditions for the pursuit of other public goods? And do not the moral claims embedded in basic civil liberties form an essential barrier against the tendency of all modern states to extend the reach of their coercive power into every nook and cranny of life? Or, to put the matter more bluntly: are not some human rights more fundamental than others, in terms both of protecting people against tyranny and of organizing a just society?

If the superior economic and social performance of Western democracies during the cold war seemed to confirm this idea of priorities among rights, the East Asian success stories of the past decade have suggested that the relationship among civil liberties, admirable economic performance, and democratization may not be as simple or as univocal as many Westerners once thought. But in the UN system, all such crucial questions have been largely ignored as ever-more-detailed lists of “rights” are concocted and compiled. (The recent Cairo population conference tried to introduce the new category of “reproductive rights,” a UN euphemism for the establishment, in international law, of the mores of the sexual revolution as practiced in such Utopias as Stockholm and Hollywood.)

But it would be misleading to leave matters on so bleak a note. For all the UN’s intellectual flaccidity and bureaucratic sluggishness, and despite the fact that the failure to assign priorities has opened the door to the claims of despots, the cause of human rights throughout the world has made considerable progress over the past 50 years.

The most spectacular successes are in East Central Europe, where a morally-inspired human-rights movement brought down the Berlin Wall and put paid to Stalin’s empire through nonviolent action aimed, quite openly, at the restoration of what were understood to be the basic human rights: civil liberties and political freedoms. The successful democratic transitions in Latin America have also been buttressed by human-rights movements which focused their attention and their activism on the traditional Western priorities.

The idea of universal and inalienable human rights has, in short, proved more powerful than some of the rationales that have hitherto been adduced in its defense. And this curious circumstance may provide an important clue for redirecting the current debate.




Any attempt to counter the new antiuniversalism and to reestablish the notion of universal human rights should begin by acknowledging that some of freedom’s less thoughtful advocates in the West (and particularly in the United States) have left liberal democracy vulnerable to the new critique: by collapsing freedom into radical personal autonomy, by failing to link the rights of persons to the fulfillment of familial and public responsibilities, and by indulging in the luxury of a moral relativism that inevitably leads to societal chaos.

But even were the United States to reverse the social pathologies of the past 30 years—even if the Supreme Court were to concede that it has too often reduced liberty to license—the question would still remain: are there really universal moral truths capable of sustaining even a minimum list of universal human rights?

Writing in COMMENTARY seventeen years ago, the sociologist Peter L. Berger proposed a “crucial distinction” between “those notions of human rights that emerge exclusively from a Western view of the world, and which will only be plausible to those sharing this view, and those notions of human rights that derive their warrant from a wider consensus.”2 The first step in drawing that distinction, according to Berger, was to separate “those rights that derive from the specifically Western values of liberty and equality from those that pertain to the human condition as such.”

Berger then sketched the outlines of a scheme of “fundamental human rights” by following an empirical via negativa, listing a catalogue of gross depredations that would be morally condemned by all of the major world cultures, especially those with deep religious roots:

Genocide; the massacre of large numbers of innocent people by their own government or by alien conquerors; the deliberate abandonment of entire sections of a population to starvation; the systematic use of terror (including torture) as government policy; the expulsion of large numbers of people from their homes; enslavement through various forms of forced labor; the forced separation of families (including the taking away of children from their parents by actions of government); the deliberate desecration of religious symbols and the persecution of those adhering to them; the destruction of institutions that embody ethnic identity.

In condemning these (admittedly widespread) abuses, Berger argued, Americans and others in the West could call upon a considerable international moral consensus which not only would be proof against the charge of “cultural imperialism” but which would appeal to moral warrants deeply embedded in non-Western cultural and religious systems.

One might take this argument a bit farther, as Berger himself has subsequently done, and think about the ways in which such transcultural appeals—by putting some actions, however traditional, definitively out of bounds—may serve to stretch existing moral systems, perhaps even prodding them to new moral insights. At a recent seminar in Washington, Berger used a mathematical analogy to illustrate this notion of “emergent understanding.” Algebra was discovered (or, perhaps more accurately, rediscovered) by 9th-cen-tury Arabs; but over time, the universal truths that algebra represented were grasped even by barbaric Europeans, who began to incorporate Arabic understandings into their mathematics in the 13th century. At which point, presumably, it became clear that algebra was not culturally-conditioned “all the way down” (to use a favored phrase of today’s Western deconstructionists).

A bit closer to modern concerns, the contemporary Roman Catholic development of doctrine on the question of religious freedom nicely illustrates the concept of “emergent understanding.” Prior to the Second Vatican Council, it was frequently argued in official Catholic circles that there was no such thing as “religious freedom,” because, as the phrase had it, “error has no rights.” Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom transcended this sterile debate by insisting that persons, whether their religious opinions were erroneous or not, had rights over against coercive state power; and the Council justified this position by an appeal to the very traditional Catholic notion that the act of faith must be freely made if it is to be, in truth, an act of faith.

In other words, a rather dramatic shift in the Church’s understanding of basic human rights and church-state relations was effected by an appeal to a religious warrant from within traditional Catholicism: as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once put it, “God wishes to be adored by people who are free.”



Might a similar process of development be possible in other great world cultural systems? At the same Washington seminar at which Peter Berger spoke, the Chinese scholar Weiming Tu reported that the seemingly Western concept of the “dignity of the person” had achieved a new cultural grip in some Confucian circles in the People’s Republic of China. It had done so, he said, precisely because the awfulness of the Beijing regime had compelled a certain “stretching” of traditional moral understandings in which the claims of individuals were usually regarded as subordinate to the demands of public order. Tu seemed to suggest that this emergent concept of human dignity, legitimated by a developed Confucian moral anthropology, might in time be able to support an understanding of civil liberties that would run parallel to, if not be identical with, Western notions of the minimal conditions of civil society.

On the other hand, deploying this strategy of “emergent understanding” in the defense of universal human rights against charges of “Western cultural imperialism” does not preclude the possibility—indeed, I would say, the certainty—that some moral claims first adumbrated in the West do indeed have a universal validity.

Thus, if religious freedom is the first of human rights, then the moral claim embedded in the notion of “religious freedom” is as valid in Shanghai, Riyadh, and Mogadishu as it is in Washington, D.C. and Peoria. If the essence of human personhood precludes treating women as property for purposes of marriage, then that is true in Khartoum no less than in Baltimore. If the notion of the equality of persons before the law rests on certain irreducible features of humanness, then the equality of persons before the law ought to be recognized in Singapore as well as in the Cook County courthouse. And these moral claims are true, no matter how different may be the social and political forms developed in different societies to embody the universal principles of religious freedom, freedom to marry, and legal equality.

To be sure, this notion of universality rests on the idea that we can speak meaningfully of a “human nature” in which a certain moral logic is hard-wired—a wholly unfashionable notion regarded as vaguely medieval and definitely “unenlightened” in many Western academic and political-intellectual circles today. But that only suggests the need to carry the debate to Cambridge, Chicago, and Berkeley as well as to the seminaries of Teheran and Qom and the Foreign Ministry of Singapore.


1 Lest this claim be thought a bit cheeky, coming from the representative of a country half the size of Chicago, let us not forget that one of America's most prominent intellectuals, the literary critic Stanley Fish, recently published a book with the title, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing Too; or that the influential philosopher Richard Rorty argues that a sustained intellectual defense of the moral claims of liberal democracy is impossible.

2 “Are Human Rights Universal?,” September 1977.

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).

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