Is The Idea Of Human Rights A Universal Concept Or A Representation Of Western Cultural Imperialism?


Human rights are the epitome of human dignity that we, as a human race, have long fought for and truly deserve. Despite the rise of continuous human rights battles around the globe, the ideology of ‘equal and inalienable’ rights stands firmly as the icon of human’s fundamental respect and morality. The notion of human rights being universal and applicable to every being is unquestionable, however, the debate on the idea of human rights being a universal concept still holds its relativity. In response to the controversy, this essay will argue that the idea of human dignity was prevalent throughout human history, but the 20th-century concept of human rights and its institutional legitimacy is an outcome of Western dominance. The ideology of human rights is yet a universal concept, but it gradually gains global consensus through the enforcement of Western cultural imperialism.

The paper will scrutinize this argument in five stages: first contemplate the ideas of human rights existing in the traditional world, second examine the newly reformed idea of human rights and why there has been a shift in the ideology. Third, study the role Western cultural imperialism plays in making the western view of human rights a universal consensus, followed by a close view of international norms and world hegemony. Fourth, explore the doctrine of human rights as it gradually becomes a universal concept through modernization. Finally, speculate a new set of human rights ideals dependent on the changes of international norms.

Across miscellaneous cultures and civilizations, many scholarly studies on the idea of human rights evidently have existed since the traditional world. Such thought was prevalent in the minds of Islamic, Asian, African and Latin American philosophers, crossing geographical barriers in the leap of a wide timeline.  Protection of human rights is “an integral part” of traditional African and Asian societies. Accordingly, most societies “cross-culturally and historically manifested conceptions of human rights.” However, the traditional attitude towards human rights is fundamentally different to the 20th-century concept of human rights which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights embodies. For instance, “the Confucian code of ethics recognized each individual’s right to personal dignity and worth, but this right was ‘not considered innate within each human soul as in the West, but had to be ‘acquired’ by his living up to the code.’” The traditional perspectives were also more aligned with the individual importance in terms of fulfilling the given role in society, instead of the “inalienable” human rights as part of a natural inheritance. This particularly modern ideal first appeared in John Locke’s natural right theory published in 1689 for the favour of the Glorious Revolution and states that “the American and French revolutions first used such ideas to construct new political order.” Further evolved in the hands of Grotius, Montesquieu, and Jefferson, “a new conception of popular sovereignty and individual rights was conceived”. Hence, while the root of the ideology arose from non-western traditional thinking, the current concept of human rights is still relatively recent and was introduced by the modern West.

This reformed doctrine of human rights was portrayed in a favoured light as it conformed to the historical, political and socio-economical context of Europe and United States at the particular time period. By 15th century Europe, feudalism – the military and legal hierarchy system centred around lordship- was in decline, as monetary relationship replaces the social and personal relationship between nobilities and serfs. The significance of money as the medium of exchange rises above the surface and “establishes ascendancy over feudal lords.” The accumulated capital then gives birth to the intensification of foreign trade and circulation of the market, hence capitalism is in an expansion. It later develops into an intense phase of urbanization and reaches a dramatic turn in the Western modern history – Industrial revolution from 1760 to 1840. The mass production is accompanied by dreadful living and working conditions for the working class, as Karl Marx mentions in his Communist Manifesto. Inevitably, the working class “demands political participation and political freedoms and arguing the ethics of social contract” in rebellion against the constraints of government and the oppression of bourgeoisies. Therefore, a series of political transformations occurred in 17th and 18th century Western Europe, made the new concept of human rights much more conceivable. Similarly, in the United States, the settlement of a new land with independent republic provokes individual initiative and competition. The new social order was akin to support the ideology of autonomous individual’s rights. In essence, “in times such doctrines became part of the prevailing shared values of Western societies.”

Western imperialism is a tool used to compel the western view of human rights to become a universal consensus. Being accepted as the norm in the world hegemony, the idea of human rights is ineludible widespread throughout the non-Western worlds. The combination of two International political theories are the backbones to this argument: the theory of norm in constructivism and the concept of hegemony.

Firstly, the norm in international relations is defined as a standard of appropriate behaviours that produce social order and place influence and coercion on actors and their actions. The evolving of human rights ideals explicitly follow the typical mechanism of a norm formation, under the light of constructivism: starting from the emergence of the idea of human rights from the modern west and successful persuasion according to the social context of its time. It then builds up to the political and social movements, which internalizes people’s general perspective on human rights. Finally, norm socialization of “equal and inalienable” human rights is exercised. However, this localized norm contains Western bias and claiming such ideal as universal can be subjected to questioning, as the non-western states are constrained by western principles.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the documented evidence of how Western rules and norms constraint non-Western actors. Even though UDHR is not a treaty, hence not legally binding, it still actively exercises diplomatic pressure on states to prevent violation of its article. The vision of UDHR is to eradicate inequality regardless of colour, creed or origin, which appears to be universally true. However, the historical context of its creation is far from being universally impartial. It was created in the aftermath of World War II, vigorously sparked by the outburst of a cry from “the minorities and ethnic groups tarnished by Nazi.” As the primary trigger points to the Holocaust, the declaration directly addresses human rights issues occurred in the Western world, while it may not be the case for the non-western issues. Saudi Arabia, one of eight abstentions when voting for the declaration in General Assembly, hesitated on article 18, which reads “everyone has the right to change his religion or belief.” This contradiction infers that some articles may not be entirely applicable to the non-western societies, and do not necessarily parallel with their cultural values. An Iranian diplomat, Rajaie-Khorassani, voiced that the declaration was “a secular understanding of the Judeo- Christian tradition” that conflicted with Sharia (Islamic) law. The social difference between 58 states, who were part of the declaration’s formulation, was outweighed by the endorsement of Western democracy recommended in UDHR.

Moreover, United Nations is heavily westernized when it was first established and when the declaration was drafted in 1948. At the initial stage, there were only five communist states out of total 51 member states, with a clear majority supporting Western positions. As Western powers were called authoritative over the organization and could have used a huge force “consisting predominantly of their own contributors to promote western political interests all over the world,” in disguise as a UN force. Hence, it is argued that the declaration is established on the assumption “Western values are paramount and ought to be extended to the non-western world,” which in other words, is Western cultural imperialism. Overall, member states are obliged to follow the western principles outlined by the declaration, as they are conscious about the rules and norms within the international community.

Secondly, an idea obtained by the world’s hegemony can easily appear as a universal concept, proposed to the international community either by consent or coercion. Hegemony is when one dominant state determines the rule, controls, and constraints the behaviour of another state. In the 19th century, Great Britain and the allied Western power were at the crown of the world’s hegemony and promoted their Western belief on human rights throughout the non-western world. Carr suggests that the supposedly absolute and universal principle is a mere interpretation of their national interest at a particular time. This leads to “the institutionalization of privilege, consequent inequality in the distributions of various values,” because “the norms and rules of any international order reflect the underlying distribution of power.” This fits realist’s argument that the powerful states advocate the values that best serve their interests and radiate them as if they were universal truth.

As an example, intervention on humanitarian grounds strengthens the institutional legitimacy of enforcement. In 1990s, UN Security Council extensively amplified its power into “matters previously considered part of the domestic jurisdiction of states,” and permitted political and military forces when necessary. Intervention signifies that it is no longer the sovereign states who determine the implementation of norms. This differs from the shared belief between the English school theorists and constructivists: states form a society of states constituted by rules of sovereignty, non- intervention and non-use force. Therefore, in the eyes of some scholars, intervention on humanitarian grounds can be interpreted as Western dominance, as it seeks to “occupy a dominant position with regard to the armed forces to be placed at the disposal of the UN.” However, my argument differs in that in extreme cases of crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, the interventions of mediators are desperately required, regardless. if Western imperialism is used as a tool. For instance, the catastrophe of Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s accentuated the human rights policies as solutions to rescue vulnerable citizens. Consequently, the Responsibility to Protect was first ever invoked in Libya during 2011 mass atrocities. In essence, human rights policies, such as intervention on humanitarian grounds, are presented as the ultimate resort to humanity, which enables the western imperialist ideas to gain global consensus and support from the remarkable majority of the international community.

Furthermore, the idea of human rights is even more progressively becoming a universal concept through modernization, and a newly reformed idea may arise as a result. Many scholars, including Donnelly, argue that without Western influence, the world would eventually accept the current definition of human rights due to capitalism, modern markets, social structural modernity and globalized states. “Human rights arose not from Western cultural roots, but from the social, economic and political transformations of modernity. They thus have relevance wherever those transformations have occurred, irrespective of the pre-existing culture of the place.” I also argue that as the competition for hegemony is perpetual, the shifts in world’s hegemony can modify the international norms and principles. For instance, United States, the world’s hegemony consequent to the Second World War, now faces China as the viable challenger to its hegemony. This transfer of power from the West to the East implies a potential change in what principles are accepted as international norms, and may suggest an alternative idea of human rights in the future.

The bottom line of my argument substantially falls to this: the idea of human rights is not absolute and universal as it appears to be, because it is a representation of the international norm at a particular time. Western dominance was at the world’s hegemony, when the protection of human rights was primarily invoked; hence, the development of human rights ideals reflects to be one of many Western imperialist phenomenon. The perpetual question of human dignity is indeed a task that calls for many more generations to anatomize, but for the current being, I believe that the idea of human rights cannot ever be a concrete concept applicable to the entire humanity, nor can survive the test of time as the world is constantly evolving.

Lina Na Gyoung Lee

Lina Na Gyoung Lee

Lina Lee is an International Relations student at Australian National University. She is a global citizen who has lived in Seoul, Shanghai and Auckland, and aims to emphasis the importance of peaceful attitudes in order to reach compromising solutions to issues around the global village.
Lina Na Gyoung Lee

About Lina Na Gyoung Lee

Lina Lee is an International Relations student at Australian National University. She is a global citizen who has lived in Seoul, Shanghai and Auckland, and aims to emphasis the importance of peaceful attitudes in order to reach compromising solutions to issues around the global village.