The Failure of the Universality Project

Despite the intentions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to uphold the metaphysical concept of human rights, from its very inception it appeared clear that the universal aspect of the UDHR was bound to fail.

One of the most fundamental issues that plagues the universality project is the “hopeless ambiguity” of the language employed. Take for example the vague terms in Article 1 that everyone should “act towards one and other in spirit and brother hood”, or Article 19 which perhaps embodies the perfect example of a varied intercontinental interpretation of rights - the right to freedom of expression. Whilst taken very literally and seriously in the US, Europe for instance do not tolerate hate speech, and in many Muslim countries corporal punishment is inflicted on those making defamatory statements towards Islam. Therefore, the UDHR fails because there may indeed be consensus that freedom of expression ought to be a human right, but it provides no guidance as to what “freedom of expression” actually means. As a result, huge discretion is left to individual governments which allows rights to be evaded, and therefore undermines the universal declaration of human rights in general.

Had the language been more descriptive, the UDHR nonetheless fails considering it has no legal force. [Jacob Dolinger, 'The Failure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' (2016) 47(2/4), The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 166–199]. Article 2(7) of the Charter of the United Nations was drafted because it was feared Member States would not otherwise ratify it. Whilst most countries agree on the principles of the UDHR, many have not engaged with it. Therefore, the lack of judicial protection and enforcement demonstrates that the UDHR only holds moral force, and is merely a vision, not an enforceable instrument. The perfect example would be the lack of action in relation to the disregard of Article 13(2) by Israel to Palestinian citizens living in Gaza and West bank. [Ilan Peleg, Human rights in the west bank and Gaza: Legacy and politics (Syracuse University Press 1995)]

However, how can we expect the Human Rights Project to be implemented universally when the countries who lead the drafting committee themselves do not adhere to it? Take the USA, who violate the right not to be tortured under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. The hypocrisy continues in that these western countries, from which inarguably the westernised values of the UDHR were born, continue to engage in business transactions with the greatest UDHR abusers [Human Rights Watch, Human rights watch world report 1992: Events of 1991 (Human Rights Watch 1991)]. During the Cold War, the United States supported UDHR violators such as Moi, Selassie and Mobutu’s regimes and overlooked their many human rights violations, despite Mobutu being known as the “archetypal African dictator”. Such an approach thus indicates that human rights are only universal when it conveniences the west [Samir Amin, The liberal virus: Permanent war and the Americanization of the world (NYU Press 2004)]. This was also seen when the US used alleged violations of Human Rights as the justifications for the war in Iraq. Now that there’s no proof of any Weapons of Mass Destruction, there is wide scepticism that the war was fought for any reason other than “a shallow rhetoric disguising the promotion of US interest”. Whilst it perhaps was not intended to be from its very inception, it is clear now that the universality project is merely a political tool, a new form of cultural imperialism or even colonisation.

Nevertheless, it must be considered that although the UDHR is in itself not binding, it has served by opening up political dialogue and engagement in relation to human rights issues that would perhaps not otherwise occur, and as a result has provided a springboard for domestic human rights projects. Even if Muslim countries do have punishments for defaming Islam, the fluid nature of culture means that their perception of free speech and other cultural ideas can evolve overtime. Thus, whilst the westernised perception of free speech has not been adopted worldwide, a worldwide dialogue has begun.

Outside of the political sphere, it has also provided support for oppressed people and illuminated some of the injustices that occur globally. Many women have drawn inspiration from the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to start their own women’s rights movements. Owing to the UDHR, the terms “human rights” or “rights” have now entered into our everyday lexis globally, meaning governments are being pressured to treat their citizens how the individuals wish, with the threat of uprisings and revolutions otherwise, as was seen in the Arab Spring.

In the grand scheme of things, the universalisation project is still in its infancy and therefore it would be ignorant to completely disregard it as a failure. Certainly, it is not yet universal due to its heavy westernised, ethnocentric and imperialistic nature. Perhaps, a solution is a mere review of the UDHR with the input of all 192 Member States, setting out clear guidelines, punishments and goals. Such an approach would prevent western democracies from overlooking violations to their interest and would also allow all countries to consent on what constitutes human rights. Only by this means a liberalised democracy will be established and the Universality Project will be successful.

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