Universal Human Rights

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The notion of universal human rights is a fairly new concept, coming into existence only after the Second World War as enshrined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The system of rights was premised on the main assumption that since no one could control his or her birth, it should then follow that everyone should have a birthright to be protected from certain ills, or guaranteed certain liberties.

Scholars have read the development of rights as a response to several features of modernity. For instance, the deinstitutionalisation of social life has been noted to be a contributing factor to the development of rights. As contemporary culture places less emphasis on traditional sense-making social institutions (such as religious, familial, and so on), this creates an unprecedented feeling of precariousness and vulnerability in the human condition, which is then alleviated by the shared humanity found in the human rights discourse (Turner 2006). Or, another feature that has been said to contribute to the development of human rights is the modern emphasis on a ‘care for the self’, which ties the significance of one’s existence to the extent to which one is able to shape one’s destiny through wilful decisions and actions (Rose 1996). The development of rights dovetails with this emphasis on self-enterprise because it guarantees certain freedoms that allow its exercise. Such perspectives are largely characteristic of work on modernity and human rights, which has often centred on either relating the development of rights to certain characteristics of modernity, or considering how they reflect its fundamental tensions (e.g., Parekh 2008). In this essay, I wish to approach this issue from a different tack; instead of co...

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...dividuals by providing an epistemological framework that reduces the other to the same, which is then used to justify hostile intervention.

In concluding, I reveal the nature of human rights discourse to be haunted by a fundamental ambiguity. Its propositions are directed at establishing a universal understanding of humanity that is compatible with moral pluralism: one that is applicable across borders, ethnicities and religiosities, and which seeks to address violations of freedoms and safeguard the sanctity of human existence. However, the commitment to rights principles seems to have the opposite effect: a privileging of a decidedly ‘Western’, liberal democratic subject that encourages an expansion of this model of socio-political organisation, and an attention to rights violations that hinders their resolution by focusing on the symptom instead of the cause.

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