Are Human Rights Universal?

A photograph of Michael Ignatieff

This is a photograph of Michael Ignatieff, the man who wrote the article that is my main focus here. He is a Canadian politician who has worked as a historian and a university professor.

In the first sentence of “The Attack on Human Rights,” Michael Ignatieff calls human rights language “a source of power and authority.”  Though he could have described it in terms of empowerment of those without authority or in terms of imposing authority upon those without power, he decides instead leave his characterization relatively neutral.  By describing human rights as a wellspring of ‘power’ and ‘authority’ Ignatieff implies that it could either be tapped into or imposed upon others, depending on the disposition of whoever uses and manipulates the human rights language.  In so doing, he draws a dichotomy between imposition and empowerment in order to argue that – at least as a kind of language – human rights empower much more than they impose.  Such a claim suggests a series of inquiries: Is this human rights empowerment universal? Could it be? And in what spheres or senses would this universalism enact itself? Finally, Ignatieff’s thesis suggests that we might compare human rights empowerment to that of a system like Shari’a law or to the PRC’s “harmonious society” rhetoric.  Does any one of these systems offer a better ‘universal’ law or language than the others?[1]

“Human rights are universal not as a vernacular of cultural prescription but as a language of moral empowerment,” states Ignatieff in a claim about the nature of the ‘universal’ in human rights. (113)  He uses the terms ‘vernacular’ and ‘language’ to describe the medium of human rights, shifting his focus away from a discussion of law or ideology – media that would invoke stark boundaries of jurisdictions and local cultures – and instead places the locus of discussion upon language.  This choice of medium thus enables him to make the claim that human rights can be made universal – if they are not already – merely by translating them into the languages of the world.  In his concluding sentence, this thesis reaches its idealistic apex:

“In such a future, shared among equals, rights are not the universal credo of a global society, not a secular religion, but something much more limited and yet just as valuable: the shared vocabulary from which our arguments can begin, and the bare human minimum from which differing ideas of human flourishing can take root.” (116)

File:United Nations Human Rights Council Logo.svg

Since 2005, the United Nations has had a Human Rights Council to actually act on this vocabulary of empowerment

His claim that human rights are not a ‘universal credo of a global society’ or ‘a secular religion’ is well thought out.  After all, were we define these rights in terms of religion, ideology, or politics, they would abound with obvious failures and boundaries between various countries and cultures.  In the preamble to the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” after all, there is no statement to derive these ‘freedoms’ and ‘liberties’ from any deity whatsoever.  As such, they suggest a secularism that would make them difficult for any religious person to adopt as ideological credo.  The only mention of ‘faith’ in the preamble comes in the phrase, ‘faith in fundamental human rights,’ making it highly questionable for those of non-secular religious persuasion. In addition, articles like number 16 make claims about marriage that would entirely undermine a system of arranged marriages:  “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”  If statements like this one were to be interpreted as law or as ideology they would result in a sort of cultural imposition, placing the power of the document over the power of local cultures.

If we instead interpreted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” as merely a language document, it loses many of these implications of imposition, and instead offers a universal remedy to whoever utilizes its ‘language of moral empowerment.’  Ignatieff argues that this interpretation offers “something much more limited and yet just as valuable,” but he neglects the fact that even language could act as a double-edged sword – at once empowering and also imposing.  After all, human rights discourse has not always existed as such – in the Far East, Europe, or in theU.S.For the sake of comparison, let us now turn to Shari’a law.


This "shared vocabulary" already encounters problems when we try to translate it into an Islamic worldview that favors Shari'a Law

In “An Introduction to Islamic Law,” Wael Hallaq draws a distinction between Shari’a law and the nation-state.  Because Pre-Modern Muslim rulers’ military and political power rarely extended to the farthest bounds of their territory (if they could even be said to have boundaries in the first place), a system of ‘self-rule’ arose, placing day-to-day court decisions in the hands of judges, muftis, fatwa assemblies, and teaching circles who made local decisions about legality and morality based on three central unifying elements: the Quran, the Sunna of the Prophet, and consensus. (7, 21)  In direct opposition to the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which bases much of its tenets upon the rational ‘Enlightenment’ thinking, Hallaq tells us, “Since the first century of Islam, Muslim legal thinking has had to wrestle with the problem of the extent to which human reason can guide humankind in conducting its material and spiritual affairs.” (14)  Even those who supported the use of rational thinking often argued that “rational thinking is a gift from God and that we should fully utilize it.” (15)  Thus, were the Shari’a system to contain a preamble like the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” God would certainly have been included in any claim for rational thought or individual liberties.  The very language of these legal debates circles around a religious faith that informs their every conclusion.

In addition, because Shari’a law places emphasis on consensus and community interpretation, it is not a monolithic ideology; rather, Shari’a is malleable across both time and place.  Even a so-called ‘universal’ document like the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” does not contain within it justification for change over time, rendering it frozen in the half-century since its composition.  In Article 16, for example, the document defines marriage as that between “men and women,” perhaps reflective of a hetero-normative ethos more prevalent in 1948 than in the present.  The lack of recourse to amend the Declaration creates temporal boundaries for its universality. In the Shari’a system, by contrast, the emphasis on consensus lends Muslim law a universality that changes to adapt to different times and locales.  As Hallaq notes, however, a resulting ‘legal pluralism’ arises to complicate matters: “For every eventuality or case, and for every particular set of facts, there are anywhere between two and two dozen opinions, if not more, each held by a different jurist.” (27) With some of these conflicting opinions held within the same communities, a paralyzing overlap of jurisdictions would ensue – in much the same way that human rights law might contradict shari’a law or national laws – creating a confusing hodgepodge of competing authorities.


Arjun Appadurai, currently a Professor at NYU and a brilliant thinker in the realms of globalization and modernity, offers us a framework through which we might try to find further understanding of Human Rights

Michael Ignatieff opposes the claim that human rights might be a sort of ‘globalism.’  His opposition makes sense: were legal or ideological systems to be globalized, just this sort of contradiction and overlap of competing jurisdictions would place each competing legal system at odds with the others; multiple systems would compete for authority within the same space.  To prevent confusion and chaos, an exported legal system would have to be ‘glocalized’ to its particular locale – either fit into an existing hierarchy or placed at the top of a new one.  Although he focuses on the international movement of cultures, Arjun Appadurai provides an interesting framework for these global flows. In a chapter of Modernity at Large titled “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” Appadurai describes cultural flows in terms of five ‘landscapes’ (ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes).  If we were to apply these landscapes to Shari’a law and human rights, we might divide the elements of their universality into flows or ‘landscapes’ of ideology, culture, media, and language.  The ‘universal’ elements of each system would be an amalgam of these related layers. The language of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” might influence ideology, which in turn creates a rhetoric that affects political systems, and in turn may result in a play of powers interpreted as either cultural imposition or liberation.

File:National Emblem of the People's Republic of China.svg

What would Ignatieff Say to those like China's Hu Jintao who favor a stable government and basic levels of welfare over human rights?

Thus, when Michael Ignatieff confidently states that human rights provide “the shared vocabulary from which our arguments can begin,” (116) he posits that this linguascape[2] would be a less intrusive medium for carrying human rights across international boundaries than were they to be implemented forcefully as ideology or as law.  His conclusion is not without its own problems and boundaries, though.  The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” would only carry weight in those languages and cultures in which individual rights-based language held authority over religious language or “harmonious society” rhetoric. Other linguistic models can also be universalized, after all.  The rhetoric of the Shari’a system would likely only carry weight for those of a Muslim religious persuasion.  Likewise, “harmonious society” rhetoric would carry weight only for those who value stability over freedom.  All might be ‘universalized,’ ‘globalized,’ or ‘glocalized,’ in varying degrees, but this does not stop their vying for authority and their competition for the dominant rhetoric.  To Ignatieff’s opening statement, I would append Shari’a law, “harmonious society” rhetoric, and other legal/ideological languages – all of these systems are “source[s] of power and authority” and all might form the backbone for a “shared vocabulary from which our arguments can begin.”

[1] This final question, though I feel it is important to ask, will elude my answer in the bounds of this five-page paper.

[2] If the reader would permit me to expand Appadurai’s framework to include the ‘landscape of language.’


About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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