Questioning Universality but Defending Human Rights?

By Ashley Drew

When we imagine a human rights defender, what springs to mind? Perhaps, we envisage an individual whose character encapsulates all that is “good”; someone who treats and views every human being as an equal and with dignity. Of late, my perception of what it means to be human rights defender has been called into question. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet and work with a group of individuals who identified themselves as human rights defenders (HRDs) and was shocked to learn that some expressed unwillingness to commit to the universality of human rights. One HRD claimed that some human rights did not apply in Africa. Another shared discriminatory views of Muslims when referring to the human rights situation in his country, seemingly unaware of how these views clashed with equal rights. Considering the mainstream portrayal of individuals in this line of work, it is highly concerning to have identified some who deny outright the notion of universality. This issue requires closer examination and presents an urgent need for further discussion.

Someone carrying the label of HRD refusing to commit to universality could be damaging to the mission and aims of the human rights movement. In a practical sense, any number of negative impacts could result from the actions and beliefs of an HRD rejecting universality. What if an HRD fighting for the prevention of torture did not support rights for homosexuals? How would their level of support change upon encountering a homosexual who had been tortured? While it may be challenging to predict the outcome of this hypothetical, we must at least accept the possibility that the victim would not be treated equally and with the dignity guaranteed to them under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a broader sense, the term “human rights defender” would likely suffer also, as would the organisations, institutions and states promoting individuals under this guise.

Certain cultural obligations and incompatible belief systems are being invoked by some HRDs in order to dismiss universality. For instance, one HRD I met worked in women’s rights but said he could not support the gay rights movement as it conflicted directly with his religious beliefs, in which homosexual relations were perceived as immoral. The definition of an HRD, accepted by numerous human rights organisations, does not permit the “excuse” of cultural relativism. Supposedly an HRD is an individual defending human rights, whether it be of all or the rights of a specific group, who commits fully to the universality of human rights. Thus, the individuals described above cannot be considered as HRDs. Realistically though, how many individuals defined as HRDs, or even working in the broad human rights movement, actually fit into this narrow and somewhat dubious category?

Generally speaking, this concern with HRDs could be seen as part of a larger inconsistency within the concept of universality. Universality itself allows for these claims from the particular to occur. By particular, I mean the claim to (or rejection of) a specific, special or identity-based right, drawn from a particular context, but relying on the universal right to equality, and frequently other universalistic claims such as the right to freedom of speech and belief, which then results in a paradoxical rejection of universality. An HRD that will not commit to universality because of a professed inability to support LGBTI rights specifies their right to freedom of religious conscience as the reason for this inability. However, the act of drawing upon the right to freedom of religious conscience suggests that this HRD identifies themselves as selectively subject to universal rights.

The trouble with the current conception of HRDs is that it promotes an essentialist perspective that cannot adequately represent realities. In other fields like anthropology, complexities involving cultural relativism and universalism are accepted as an issue worth exploring. Until now, the realm of defending human rights has largely avoided this kind of scrutiny. These common assumptions must be questioned. Moreover, whether individuals defending rights fall under the definition of HRD or not, it remains an issue that there are individuals potentially damaging human rights whilst simultaneously promoting and protecting them.

About the Author:

Ashley Drew is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. She recently graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London with a masters in International Studies.

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