Human Rights: universal or a western construct?

"In this piece, awarded Highly Commended by Professor A.C. Grayling, I discuss the ideology of Human Rights are their significance across the world today" Ben Kinnear

Since the United Nations declaration of rights in 1948, circumstances, ideologies, governments, globalization and above all “cultural exceptionalism”[1] have caused political, civil and moral debate over the topic whether they are universal. The word ‘universal’ can be defined – present everywhere. To say that human rights are universal today is not true to an extent however to also say that they are a Western construct is only partly true also. A Western Construct is a theory developed by the Western world that is subjective and normally contains various elements to 

incorporate into the definition. Human rights affect all of humanity over the world, but how do radical groups such as the Taliban challenge this? How are Human Rights being universally challenged from issues within the West itself?[2] In order to conclude on whether Human Rights are universal or not, these are some of the questions that need to be answered and will be throughout this essay. One cannot simply say that Human Rights are universal because there are several examples of where they are not – such as the oppression of women in the Middle East or America’s use of the death penalty. But equally, a conclusion cannot be said that they a mere Western construct, as again there is evidence that will refute this. The topic is broad, so this essay will only focus in on some of the key debates that surrounds it.

Academic Michael Ignatieff describes three ways for the universality of Human Rights to be challenged; from resurgent Islam, within the West itself and from East Asia. Ignatieff focuses heavily on being a Western concept being the subject the declaration, highlighted by his use of evidence based on Islamic critics of the document focusing especially on Article 16 and 18 regarding freedom of marriage and religion. The Saudi Arabian delegate describes the document only taking into account standards recognised by Western Societies and ignoring ancient standards for which marriage has not been a part of for centuries. The delegate finishes off by stating that it was not for a committee to proclaim superiority of one civilisation for another.[3] When debating the universality of Human Rights, this is very significant as non-western societies are being documented openly describing that the declaration only favours the most powerful part of the world, in contrast to societies who do not believe on some of the articles but are not powerful enough to challenge them. Since the Islamic revolution in the 1970, the universality of the declaration has been challenged by Islam, particularly from a religious point of view and the discrepancies between the jurisprudence and political thought of the Islamic tradition compared to the Western divide of secular and religious authority. Islamic eyes see the discourse of rights imply a sovereign and discrete individual, blasphemous to the Koran. This can be seen as a Human Rights being a Western Construct because they only focus on Christianity however, a lack of universality can also be inferred from a different point of view due to ideological differences so although, this argues non-universality, it also argues that Rights are not a Western Construct which should also be seen as another option. Ignatieff argues that challenges to the universality and arguments for Rights being a Western Construct lie from issues within the West itself. Western political scholars Pollis and Schwab argue that Human rights are a Western Construct of limited applicability and are a twentieth century fiction based on traditions of the great powers such as France and America, so are therefore inapplicable to cultures not sharing liberal individualism. This view is supported by Confucian scholar Tu Weiming who writes that non-western cultures have to try to balance the co-existence of social responsibilities to ones based on individualism like the declaration suggest. However, this is criticised by Harry Triandis who said that collectivism and individualism can exist together[4]. Ignatieff argues that Human rights are part of a critique of Western intellectual hegemony as expressed that Human Rights are seen as an exercise of Western reason, that they cannot longer dominate the world through direct rule but mask its power through the supposed universal language of Human Rights.[5]


Throughout the period of since the Declaration of Human rights, a period of modernization and globalisation has occurred. Although inherent to society, globalisation did not occur as the same rate across the world. Thomas M Franck describes that Human rights are a by-product of globalisation and as some parts of the world are still experiencing or haven’t gone through this process there will be conflict over the need and validity of Human Rights.[6] However, this again doesn’t argue a Western Construct to an extent because even though the West was modernized first, other areas had not been so development can be seen as the reason for the lack of universality. Religion must be considered also when debating Human Rights. Non-western societies today have a lack of freedom for religion, however in Tudor England there was certainly no trace of toleration. Franck quotes ‘there is nothing remotely Western about religious Freedom and tolerance arguing it is not a construct but ideological differences.


Throughout history and present today, different governments have different circumstances and also different aims depending on their political stability and economic situation. A key concept is ‘freedom from or freedom to’. The cold war involved US targeting the apparent repression in the Soviet Union, in order to encourage the freedom of speech – to, where as China argued that feeding one billion people needed order and a de-emphasis on freedoms that were present such as article 3 - Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.[7] From this, it is clear to see that Human rights are a source of global interest and involvement from countries in inconsistent. From this it can be argued universally, although unrecognisable or argued that human rights do not exist at all as they are only pursued when it is best suited. Arguing in favour for rights being a Western construct, this example shows what should be universal is being implemented in a Western way. Jeremy Bentham’s theory, Utilitarianism agrees with this. Ignatieff describes rights only being meaningful only if they confer entitlements and immunities on individuals[8] which is only really seen in Western Societies and for this reason group rights need to be in place to protect individual rights created from the concept of a solution so Human Rights being a Western Construct.

Equality is perhaps the biggest debate surrounding our generation today and the lack of equality in some areas around the world. The only Right that is universally accepted is Article number 2 – Right to life[9], however America, a Western society still imposes the death penalty in some states such as Texas so although this shows a lack of universality, it also shows that Rights are not a Western Construct. There are similar examples such as slavery only being abolished in America in 1865 having been sanctioned by the Old Testament[10], or France not extending the franchise to women until the end of World War II.[11]

Vardy and Grosch describe the lack of application to some rights which should be universal such as right to equality before law and while most would say that examples of these rights are not seen in non-Western societies, examples in America show that this is not the case[12]. Within the American legal system, normally the side with the most money wins as they can debate for longer which is imperative to winning a legal case – time. This shows a lack of a Western Construct but also a lack of universality. Aristotle suggests that everyone who is unable to live in a society is a beast or a God[13], which suggests Rights are a Western Construct but also universal as all of humanity lives in some sort of society however Franck descries people need to be ‘freed from’ a forced society – focusing on individualism and a Weiming’s writing saying that individualism is what the world and the Western world in particular is made up of.

Concluding it is clear to see that a of universality within Human Rights is present within a global society today. To put this down to a singular reason it too difficult as there are too many such as ‘Cultural Exceptionalism’ suggested by Franck or a lack of reality in saying the Rights will be seen globally suggested by Peter Vardy and Paul Grosch[14]. From the essay, it is clear that there are some forms of universality seen with Human Rights however not enough and the gap between some societies beliefs needs to decrease in order for tension to decrease in particular with the Middle East and the USA. Some solutions could be diplomatic negotiations, but the need for military and fiscal recourses is key[15]. Non-universality is definitely concluded however, a debate still remains that only to an extent are Rights a Western Construct.

[1] Are Human Rights Universal? – Thomas M Franck

[2] Based on the theories suggested by Michael Ignatieff – The Attack on Human Rights

[3] Michael Ignatieff – The Attack on Human Rights, p103

[4] focusing on a debate on whether Human Rights are a Western Construct or not

[5] Michael Ignatieff – The Attack on Human Rights, p105

[6] Thomas M. Franck – Are Human Rights Universal, p199

[7] UN Declaration of rights website -

[8] Michael Ignatieff – The Attack on Human Rights, p108


[10] Exodus 21: 2, 26, 27, 32

[11] Thomas M. Franck – Are Human Rights Universal, p200

[12] The Puzzle of Ethics - Peter Vardy and Paul Grosch, p197

[13] Thomas M. Franck – Are Human Rights Universal, p201

[14] The Puzzle of Ethics - Peter Vardy and Paul Grosch, p197

[15] Thomas M. Franck – Are Human Rights Universal, p204

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