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READ: Universal Rights

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and according to this article, why was it written?
  2. What were some ways that oppressed people used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights immediately after it was signed?
  3. According to the author, what is the fundamental problem facing people who want to make human rights universal?
  4. What do cultural relativists argue?
  5. According to this article, are human rights an invention of Western imperialists?
  6. What are some ways that globalization has helped spread human rights? What are some ways that it has endangered human rights?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Like most of the articles you’ll read in this unit, this one doesn’t give you many definitive answers. So, you’ll just have to decide: Do you think that the concept of human rights is enough to protect people in the age of globalization?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Universal Rights

By Bennett Sherry
In 1948, 48 countries signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, globalization has spread, supported, and threatened human rights.


Human rights are rights that are held by every person on the virtue of being human. "Universal" just means that everyone has them. Simple, right? Turns out, not so much. The question of whether there are human rights, and what they are, has been contested pretty much from the moment people started using the phrase. But let's focus here on the last 75 years or so since the end of the Second World War. As globalization has connected the world, human rights have become the common language of international morality. But as they've spread, so have arguments over what they mean and where they apply. This article will explore those debates and ask whether globalization has made human rights more universal.
The second half of the twentieth century saw the rise of international organizations like the United Nations. New non- governmental organizations sprung up around the world, seeking to address humanity's worst problems. Countries signed international treaties designed to solve the problems of war, exploitation, and prejudice. Among these treaties were the first international documents addressing human rights—rights universal to every human regardless of their race, religion, gender, or address. But that same twentieth century also witnessed some of the most depraved acts of violence and atrocities committed on a massive scale. Genocides and ethnic cleansing in Cambodia, Rwanda, Iraq, Bosnia, and elsewhere all happened alongside international cooperation and the spread of human rights.

Universal declaration

In December 1948, 48 national governments agreed that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world". The atrocities of the Second World War galvanized the victorious nations to define the rights to which all people are entitled. These include the rights to liberty, to expression and freedom of thought, to assemble peacefully, to work and own property, to an education and social protection, and to not be enslaved, tortured, or arbitrarily arrested.
In 2018, the United Nations celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). On that anniversary, Ved Nanda, a human rights scholar at Denver University, warned that the UDHR is under threat:
“pervasive and massive gross violations of human rights persist…from China, Vietnam, The Philippines, and Myanmar to Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Guatemala, Syria, and several countries in the Middle East and Africa. Extreme nationalism and populism are rising in… Europe and authoritarian rulers on every continent often violently suppress dissent. However, the declaration remains a beacon [a guiding light or fire] of hope and justice for those oppressed. It has inspired those fighting for civil rights and those protesting against apartheid and colonialism. It enshrines the simple yet radical and powerful idea that that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
This op-ed, penned by a man who was born in India while that country was still under British rule and who was just entering university there when the UDHR was ratified, is himself an example of the significance the UDHR still has today. His message was a warning: the world is failing to meet the ideals enshrined in the Declaration. But it was also a message of hope: the document itself is a beacon.

Universal tensions

Human rights activists around the world responded quickly to the UDHR. India challenged South Africa in the UN General Assembly over its racist apartheid system. In 1950, the General Assembly passed a declaration denouncing apartheid. The civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP brought charges against the U.S. government in the UN General Assembly over segregation. The subjects of European empires in Asia and Africa used the UDHR to demand their right to self-determination.
The governments in question, however, pointed to the UN Charter. As you'll remember from Unit 7, the UN Charter both proclaimed the importance of human rights and reaffirmed the right of state governments to do whatever they wanted in their own borders. But proponents of human rights claimed that the new UDHR placed human rights abuses outside national sovereignty and into the realm of international law. They faced one significant hurtle though: the UDHR was a declaration. It was not a binding treaty or a national or international law.
This is the fundamental problem facing proponents of human rights: it's very hard to make someone do something they don't want to do if they also command an army. This is why human rights abuses and atrocities continue to happen into the twenty-first century, despite documents like the UDHR.
But this problem hasn't stopped people from trying. Since 1948, most nations in the UN have agreed to dozens of different treaties relating to human rights. The UN considers nine treaties as the "core" of international human rights. And that's not even counting conventions on genocide, refugees, and other issues. The UN has fifteen committees monitoring the core treaties.
Just as important as the United Nations and other international organizations, if not more so, has been the explosion in the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to promote human rights. When Amnesty International was first formed in 1961, it was pretty much the only NGO working explicitly on human rights issues. In 1977, the organization won the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, there are thousands of NGOs working with the UN. Advocacy by tens of thousands of local and national NGOs has been critical to protecting and spreading human rights.
Amnesty International sign at the 2016 Pride parade in Dublin, Ireland. Giuseppe Milo, CC BY 2.0.

Universal or relative?

As human rights have spread around the world, two opposed perspectives emerged: universalists and cultural relativists. Universalists believe that human rights are the same everywhere and should be applied the same in every place and context. Cultural relativists, on the other hand, believe that human rights should be interpreted differently in different places and contexts.
Cultural relativists argue that human rights are based in the values and norms of Western Europe and North America. Therefore, they say, human rights are a form of cultural imperialism. Universalists claim that cultural relativists want to continue traditional practices, many of which restrict or abuse the rights of women and minorities while using "culture" as a justification.
It is true that the language of human rights reflects many values from Western culture. In particular, individual political rights are prominent in human rights treaties. Many of these rights got their start during the Enlightenment. In fact, you may recognize some of them from the United States Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Many non-Western belief systems do promote collective rights, though documents like the UDHR often put less emphasis on those.
Human Rights Chairman, Eleanor Roosevelt, at the UN. From the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain.
Still, many non-Western people played key roles in shaping the UDHR and later treaties. The Chinese scholar and diplomat, P.C. Chang, for example, helped write the UDHR. He claimed that "human rights are for everyone". In writing the UDHR, he was joined by representatives from Lebanon, the Philippines, India, and Chile, alongside Western representatives like Eleanor Roosevelt. The Commission that drafted the treaty enlisted the help of the "Committee on the Philosophic Principles of the Rights of Man", which consulted belief systems around the world to advise the writers of the UDHR on universal norms and values.1 These debates have only intensified with globalization.

Globalization and human rights

You're reading a lot about globalization in this unit. Globalization has certainly helped spread the idea of human rights. As the United States played a key role in 20th century globalization, American notions of human rights (especially individual political rights) came along with new economic systems. Today, even the most despotic regimes at least pay lip service to the importance of human rights. But has globalization actually improved human rights in practice?
Unfortunately, the answers to this question are not clear, and they are still unfolding. Globalization has connected more of the world than ever, ensuring that abusers of human rights cannot hide atrocities in the dark. Activists like those in Iran's Green Movement, Egypt's Tahrir Square, and Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement can tweet and livestream abuses and coordinate their protests. However, governments also have access to the same technology. States that abuse human rights can and have used new technologies to misinform and surveil their citizens.
Globalization has definitely changed the material conditions of most people in the world, and this has important consequences for human rights. Many argue that, as a result of globalization, more humans than ever before have been lifted out of poverty. Access to healthcare, clean water, and technology has spread to new regions. Democracy has spread around the world. Today, more than half of all people live in a democracy.
However, in the era of globalization, inequalities have increased between people and nations. Over half of the world's wealth is owned by just one percent of its population. The spread of large corporations has especially jeopardized workers in poorer parts of the world. So, while fewer people live in abject poverty, almost half the people alive today live on less than $5.50 a day (about $2,000 a year). As many as 1.5 billion people get by on less than $1.25 a day. And while globalization has connected the world and made it easier to travel and communicate across borders, ethnic cleansing and genocide have been all too common. This has led some people to ask if universal human rights are a nice idea, but not really the lived reality for millions of people around the world.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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