Universal Human Rights Apply to All Individuals

Craig Axford | United States

When the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, it seemed as though perhaps the liberal dream of a global consensus regarding the conditions necessary for human flourishing was at last within reach. Coming, as it did, on the heels of a global war that had taken the lives of over 40 million people and included organized industrial-scale genocide, this consensus was no small accomplishment.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home?—?so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Of course, humanity had a great deal of ground still left to cover in 1948 before the universal principles articulated by the UN Human Rights Commission led by Eleanor Roosevelt could become a reality. Indeed, though we can point to examples of considerable progress since then, there are still far too many people suffering oppression and poverty to claim anything like complete success has been achieved.

But aspiration always precedes accomplishment. Even if never fully realized, a world where human rights are more fully realized is considerably better than a world where the goal of universal rights hasn’t even been formally articulated. It is through their articulation that both our progress and lack thereof can be measured.

That human rights are indeed universal or should be, was, for liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt, a self-evident truth. It was understood that denying a girl an education on the grounds that her culture mandated it was not an acceptable excuse for denying her right to an education. Likewise, poverty was not acceptable simply because society had a long aristocratic tradition that enabled only a few access to opportunities that should be available to everyone.

However, rights can only be universal to the extent that the individual is valued above both tradition and institutions. As John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

This liberal inclusive worldview was implicitly embraced in the name that came to describe the fight for equality during the 50s and 60s. The Civil Rights Movement welcomed everyone to the struggle in the full and certain knowledge that any single group’s oppression was something everyone, regardless of their background, had a stake in.

However, there was by no means complete consensus within the African-American community regarding this approach. Others embraced the language of “black power” instead. Though we shouldn’t minimize or deny the role of the leaders who took this more exclusivist and often more militant approach, there can be no denying that they failed to attract needed allies from outside the African-American community.

Thankfully, Martin Luther King Jr. and others understood that civil rights are ultimately as much about humanity’s universal struggle for equality as it is any one group’s efforts to overcome injustice. Whether meaning to or not, a movement that describes itself as an effort to gain power for a particular group instead of as an attempt to participate as equals within society is framing power as something that cannot be readily shared. “Black power” logically justifies “white power”, whereas civil rights communicate that true justice is not a zero-sum game. Equality ultimately liberates everyone, even if the privileged don’t initially see it that way.

Unfortunately, the left has increasingly identified the struggle for rights with the particular disenfranchised group seeking them. Though well-intentioned, this framing muddles what should be a rather straight forward argument. From a universalist perspective, terms like “women’s rights” or “gay rights” are rather curious ways to describe rights. Are there some rights that belong to women or gays that aren’t shared by men or heterosexuals?

A universalist finds the suggestion ridiculous. A woman has a right to an education and control over her body because she’s a human being, not because these rights are peculiar to being born female. Likewise, a homosexual has the right to marry because all adults have the right to marry, not because this is a “special right” only people of a particular sexual orientation are entitled to.

This thing of always going against minorities is not OK with me. When you then talk about European funds to invest in the neighbourhood, I think those funds must be spent on everyone. No one should be left behind. Neither the Italians, nor the Roma, nor the Africans should be abandoned. ~ Teenager confronting anti-immigrant protesters in Italy

The columnist Kenan Malik recently wrote in The Guardian regarding the importance of remembering the history of identity politics. Originally, he reminds us, it wasn’t called “identity politics”. It was known by another name: racism. Nineteenth-century white males, in particular, twisted both religion and science to advance their view that they stood at the pinnacle of creation.

To counter this twisted philosophy, humanists and religious liberals increasingly identified human rights as universal rather than the privilege of a select few. As Malik puts it, “It is, however, in the concept of race — the insistence that humans are divided into a number of essential groups, and that one’s group identity determines one’s moral and social place in the world — that we find the original politics of identity, out of which ideas of white superiority emerged.”

Malik contends that the 21st-century tendency to once again divide ourselves up into groups (white, black, Hispanic, Asian, trans, gay, straight, a variety of genders, etc.)has given white supremacists and other bigots the chance for a comeback that they’ve been waiting for. He writes, “what began as struggles against oppression and for social change transformed over time into demands for cultural recognition by myriad social groups…The identitarians of the far right” in turn “seized on the opportunity to legitimize their once-toxic brand, reclaiming their original heritage.”

People do have differences, of course. That can’t be denied. Indeed, it’s ironic that the left often seems as keen to deny differences between people as it does to promote individual and group identity. The point of universal human rights isn’t that we are all the same. Nor is it that we should strive to all be the same. The point of universalism is that none of the differences between us are significant enough to justify denying others the same rights we demand for ourselves.

Only by accepting universal rights as our starting premise can we honestly discuss our differences without fear they will be exploited by those seeking to justify oppression. But this requires us to make our own personal identity a secondary rather than a primary concern. A society that craves both personal validation and universal human rights is serving two competing masters. The former whispers into one ear “you are greater than the whole” while the later tirelessly reminds us in the other that humanity is greater than any single individual or group. Which one will we choose to listen to?


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