The Philosophy of Human Rights

by Manuella Attoh

‘A doctrine of human rights should challenge other ways of thinking; it should confront and seek to displace cultures and ideologies that fail to recognise human rights.’

At face value, the importance of abiding by human rights would appear necessary and almost an obvious requirement for the welfare of human beings globally. This is to allow the protection and promote the worth of the individual. However, the way in which the concept of human rights is imposed upon some groups as a superior doctrine often presents as a bias ideology. This may favour western cultures at the expense of others, thus causing conflict between the two. Huntingdon (1993) defines this conflict as ‘the clash of civilisations’.

Given that ‘human rights’ have historically stemmed from Europe with the establishment of the French Declaration of Rights (1789), and the UDHR (1948), it is argued that fundamentally, this concept has derived from a ‘Western … perspective’ (Cobbah, 1987:311). Therefore, although the theory of human rights has a mandate to promote peace and security globally, controversially it poses the question as to whether these rights can realistically be adopted globally, whilst still being inclusive of non-western cultures.

This assignment will therefore seek to understand the universality of human rights and will conclude by stating an overall opinion of the statement in question, challenging whether human rights should govern global ideologies, the country of Sudan will be used in example.

Donnelly (2003) defines human rights as rights which are inalienable, indisputable and relevant to every human being (2003:10). This perspective argues that all human beings are ‘right holders’ hence worthy of basic protections, such as freedom from torture and right to life (Orend, 2002:15; UDHR, 1948). Parekh (1999:140) reinforces this entitlement by arguing that the human body acquires an inherent dignity, thus requiring stable, rationalised universal rights to enforce this status (Orend, 2002:16).

However, a strong dispute in conflict with this is that the cultures and ideologies of non-western countries (that do not comply with global HR) should not be challenged to enforce human rights on their people, as no present other is recognised to hold the right to invoke this authority (Parekh, 1999). Parekh lays the statement, ‘we have no means of judging them for there are no objective and universal criteria available … and even if there were, we would be too deeply conditioned by our own society to discover them’ (1999:128). This quote articulates a relativist argument that one cannot challenge an opposing culture due to an inevitable bias which would take place. Ultimately, this argument contends against that of Jones (2000) in reference to the ability to subvert ideologies which conflict with human rights.

On the other hand, it could equally be argued that it is a grave injustice to merely ignore violations of torture and mistreatment, simply in response to cultural values. Burnell (2017:281) suggests that doing this acts as an ‘ideological attempt to justify authoritarian government’, as it may allow authoritarian regimes to cause harm on its citizens all in the name of cultural traditions. This raises the question of when exactly it is acceptable and appropriate to draw the line between an individual’s rights to protection and security and its conflict with cultural ideologies.

Contrarily, conflicting ideas have been adopted by the Asian Values debate. The Bangkok Declaration (1993) promotes a cultural relativist opinion of human rights, proposing that the UDHR (1948) must cater to local cultures (Engle, 2000:311). It argues that the current concept of universal values is a form of ‘neo-imperialism’ put in place to control the non-west as these concepts appear to seek to overrule contrasting views (Davidson, 2001:37, Ibhawoh, 2007:24). Therefore, to be accepted globally, Parekh (1999:139) contends that universal values must be ‘free of ethnocentric biases’ and have ‘un-coerced cross cultural dialogue’. If they fail to do this, it can be argued they may not be fit for purpose to challenge or displace other cultures.

This cultural relativist view defensively rejects ideals suggesting that theories of human rights are unquestionably superior to non-western principles (Parekh, 1999). They argue that the idea that one way of life is ‘truly human’ in contrast to another is ‘logically incoherent’, due to the assumption of a hierarchy of cultures conjoined to create a ‘harmonious whole’ or ‘cultural wholism’ (Cobbah, 1987:137; Butler, 2008). This disagrees with the idea that Europe is greater in terms of its modern human rights and that ‘traditional’ cultural views can be corruptive to this. It also disagrees with the assumption that a way of life can be reduced to a single value or principle which can be compared directly to another. This relativist argument therefore debates against the quote stated by Jones (2000), arguing that one should not displace traditional cultures that may not recognise human rights.

Contrarily, a monist perspective would critique these Asian values stating that all humans share similar capacities and basic needs, irrespective of their culture, and therefore require a common intervention of norms and values (Parekh, 1999). This is explained by the theory of human nature, which argues that humans innately possess the same necessities and therefore require similar rights of protection (Hobbes, 1651). This quantifies the argument that human rights are applicable and necessary at least in some ways to all and therefore must be enforced universally in response to this.

This essay will now focus on the enforcement of human rights in Africa (Sudan).

The presentation of rights in Africa as a whole differs to that of the western world, partly due to the significance of communitarian values as opposed to individualism (O’Byrne, 2003:42). Cobbah (1987:325) states that Africans are ‘wethinking’ whereby westerners are not, with many cultures valuing accountability for ones neighbour (Villa-Vicencio, 1992).

This understandably conflicts with the concept of human rights in countries like Sudan. A key example of this conflict is the act of female genital mutilation (fgm). This is a pre-marital requirement in many Sudanese cultures as it enforces the woman’s status within her village (Hodges and Vivani, 2006). However, this often goes against the will of the woman and fails to protect her rights for the sake of communal doctrines. Unicef statistics show that 87% of females in Sudan aged 15-49 have foregone the procedure, many stating that it was due to pressure from society (Salih, 2016). Moreover, 74% were between 5-9 years when subjected to the procedure, this argued to be a violation of human rights, and rightly so (Landinfo, 2008).

It can be assumed here that by western means, African values such as this one must be challenged as they do not appear to value the individual and her right to protection from harm, this dismisses her right to ‘freedom from torture and degrading treatment’ (UDHR, Article 5). Alternatively, it may be deemed unfair to enforce individualistic rights which conflict with the traditions of African cultures as these traditions are often vital to their community dynamics.

This assignment will conclude by agreeing with the statement proposed by Jones (2000). It will advocate that ‘A doctrine of human rights should challenge other ways of thinking’, as a moral duty to protect the individual. What is important here is that these basic values ensure that the dignity of human beings are recognised (Cobbah, 1987). Nevertheless, it is important to attain a somewhat balance between upholding the values of cultures whilst still protecting the rights of vulnerable people.