Universal Declaration Of Human Rights Is Relatively Universal In Practice

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion [...]” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, article 2). Human Rights are equal, inalienable - nobody can stop someone else from enjoying them - and universal - they apply to all. This corpus of rights can be considered as a real mainstay in our modern societies since they represent people’s dignity. But after all what does universal mean? Universality is a very complex concept to tackle since everything is relative.

Are human rights universal? What universality are we talking about? In theory, we can easily say that Human Rights are Universal however, in practice it might be better to say they are ‘Relatively Universal’.

Human Rights are Universal

In theory, I think Human Rights can be considered as ‘Universal’. They have crossed decades and remain a key tool. We must take a look at the classical work considering it: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The key ideas are the right to life, liberty and security (Article 3), the prohibition of slavery, servitude and slave trade (Article 4), and the prohibition of torture, cruel or degrading treatment (Article 5). It has been written by people coming from all over the world - such as Eleanor Roosevelt or Peng Chun Chang - so it can be the more Universal possible. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established on 10th December 1948 in Paris by the United Nations General Assembly. There were height abstentions when voting including South Africa (in favor of the ‘apartheid) and The United Arab States (refused equality for men and women). This major work was part of the healing process post World War II - at the time this declaration was written, the world was slowly understanding the real extent of the genocide that had been committed. Atrocities were witnessed and this declaration is also a way to avoid traumatic events to happen again. Human Rights rose from “concrete suffering of real human beings and their political struggles to defend or realize their dignity”. It specifies basic fundamental rights we should all be able to enjoy and embodies the very hope for a better world. They want to reach Universality and by that it means all states should consider those Universal Human Rights as part of international law and not as something optional. Human Rights are - mostly - accepted and applied in the world and have remained a real benchmark even 72 years after. This prominent idea of ‘Universality’ has also been reviewed in 1993 during the Vienna Conference on Human Rights. This gathering made concrete recommendations for applying and managing Human Rights and presented them as the biggest priority. The two main international institutions which aim to monitor their application are:

  • The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was established in 1993 thanks to the World Conference on Human Rights. Their goal is to promote the Universality of Human Rights and protect them at all costs.
  • The International Criminal Court was established in 2002 and deals with violations of Human Rights such as torture or crime against humanity. Its purpose is to make sure countries apply them under sentence. As Human Rights are applied nationally, this institution is a way to complete and help national justice systems.

Human Rights were - when they were established - and remain today a major goal for our modern societies. That is why everything is set up so this ‘Universality’ - which occurs on a large-scale and in the long run - becomes reachable.

Universality is a complex notion to deal with since there are no boundaries. I think that everything is relative and that’s why I find this word particularly difficult to handle. ‘Universality’ shouldn’t be used on its own. The fact is that the world is far from being homogenous and that is why I would rather claim that Human Rights are ‘Relatively Universal’. Taking the ‘relative’ - something exists only by the relation to something else (Oxford English Dictionary) - into consideration allows us to consider the cultural, social, and historical background of each country. This relativity is crucial so we can realize that countries don’t have the same History, Culture, or even level of Development. According to Samuel Huntington in his book entitled The Clash of Civilizations: 'The most important distinctions among peoples are [no longer] ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural' (1993). According to him there are height distinct civilizations which mean different Cultures, History, beliefs, etc. There is no ‘universal’ Culture which makes it more difficult to see Human Rights through the same prism. Switching of thinker and dealing with Francis Fukuyama and his work on The End of History (1989) in which he claimed that the world is dominated by Western states which want to impose their way of living. Anyhow, universality is more and more disputed. What if Human Rights were an imperialist tool symbolising the civilisational hegemony?

Human Rights are ‘Relatively Universal’

Human Rights are ‘Relatively Universal’ and can’t be applied equally everywhere. First, I will deal with cultural relativism and then with politico-economic relativism.

Each country’s cultural luggage has a different impact on how they apply to Human Rights. We can see through Human Rights a way for western culture - developed countries - to impose their values and way of living: ‘soft-power’. This concept of International Relations has been suggested by Joseph Nye in his work Bound to Lead (1990) and describes the power of influencing the cultural or ideological level. Even if this concept is supposed to apply to the United States of America, here ‘the soft power’ is exercised by The Western States.

On the religious level, this ‘soft-power’ is far from being accepted and welcome. This ‘Universality’ is strongly disapproved and even lead to the rise of Muslim extremists - such as Al-Qaeda that committed several attacks. One of the most rejected themes of Human Rights for them is the freedom of speech. In January 2015, 17 people got killed in the Charlie Hebdo newspaper headquarters in Paris. This french newspaper is considered as satirical and turns different topics into derision that sometimes lead to blasphemy. They particularly didn’t like the fact that the newspaper made fun of their prophet Muhammed or even their religion. This was their radical way of showing their disagreement with freedom of speech.

Universalism remains ‘relative’ even for The Western States leading several countries to call it ‘fake universalism’. Some Great Puissance declares themselves as leaders of those Human Rights but sometimes act hypocritically by not applying them or even not caring if other countries neglect them - regarding the risk of jeopardizing their economic relations with them. For example after the terrorist attack of September 2001, men involved in the Twin Tower tragedy that were able to be captured were directly transferred to Guantanamo - American non-law zone. In this area, not a single Human Right or even law is apply which encourages torture. However, according to the 10th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “Everyone has a right to a fair trial”. I am not considering whether those men were guilty or not, I am just pointing out the fact that they weren’t allowed to be judged legally and directly. That’s not because those people chose not to respect Human Rights - here freedom of speech - that we should do the same. However, 18 years after this tragedy, The New York Times claimed that the terrorist trial is supposed to take place in 2021. Why waiting that long? In addition to this example, we can also talk about the gender pay gap. How is it possible that developed countries have one that remains at such a high level in 2020? According to The Economist the median hourly wage for German women - Germany being one of the worst European countries in terms of the pay gap - is 21% less than men’s. Human Rights should be a priority especially in those countries - like Germany which is a European leader - that have all means to reach the common goal.

As we know, countries have evolved differently which makes inequalities inevitable - especially on the economic level. As countries are developing at their own speed, inequalities regarding their level of development appeared. Developed countries offer better access to education which eases the understanding of Human Rights. It can be clearly seen that ‘basic’ rights regarding life, health, security seem to be pretty universal and inalienable. On the contrary, the division occurs when it comes to rights regarding freedom of speech, conscience, and religion - where it might be more problematic. Dealing with this issue, we should take a look at the famous Pyramid of needs established by Abraham Maslow - who is an American psychologist considered as a pioneer of the humanistic approach. According to him, there are five levels of needs that he ranked in a pyramid. Starting from the bottom there are the ‘physiological needs’, ‘safety needs’, ‘love and belonging needs’, ‘esteem needs’, and finally ‘self-actualization needs’. There are classified from the essential for surviving to personal fulfilment. Maslow’s analysis is a good way to understand that the different stages of countries’ development allow them to ‘climb’ the pyramid. Such things as Human Rights are not the priority for all countries like developing countries that are still struggling.

Talking on a more political level, race equality is a fight that started decades ago with slavery, colonisation, and segregation. The world is still recovering from all the pain it caused.

Nelson Mandela was a major actor in the fight against apartheid - segregation between black and white people - for which he dedicated his whole life. This worldwide famous activist was president of the Republic of South Africa and a Nobel Peace laureate. The ‘apartheid’ policy was established in 1948 in Africa and was abolished in 1991. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has therefore been established the same year as the ‘apartheid’ - we can understand why South Africa did not wish to adhere to this declaration. This policy lowered the status of black people as inferior to white people even if the very first paragraph of this declaration specifies that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” Black people were not allowed to go to school or even use the same facilities as white people. How can we pretend to Universality when this happened? Once again, Universality is question. Not all countries were forced to adopt the declaration and it indubitably created a gap between them.


Human Rights are not Universal but ‘Relatively Universal’: relative to our contemporary world, relative to all the historical background of countries. I would say that it doesn’t feel right to consider Human Rights as Universal since they are the outcome of European History reflecting the achievements of Western ideas. The concept of ‘Universality’ rose from particular historical conditioning and can’t be understood by countries that have different cultural luggage. They can be instrumentalized by Great Puissance for manipulating ‘developing countries’. However, Human Rights are also a very useful tool used to do good by communities claiming their rights and making progress. People died in this search for Universality but it was not vain. This barometer remains a benchmark nowadays, but I think they might need changes to correspond even better or be given new tools to set their enforcement. They were powerful enough to give birth to new rights and open the path to new ideas like The Universal Declaration of Animal Rights (1978) or even The Declaration of Child Rights (1989). Those great improvements give hope concerning the future of Human Rights and their influence which remains in our modern world. 

16 August 2021
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