The Universality of Human Rights: Developing Narratives to Help Overcome Polarization

Completed in December 2022

Universality – i.e. the notion that international human rights law (IHRL) protects all individuals worldwide – has been a key IHRL principle since it was enshrined in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. By way of illustration, most – if not all – States have each ratified at least one (international or regional) human rights treaty.

However, in multilateral forums such as the United Nations (UN), States have never ceased challenging this principle – on both normative and political grounds. Such criticism originally consisted of relativism (human rights as a western(ized) conception). Today, certain States now regularly invoke exceptionalism (specific meaning and content of human rights guarantees viewed as being relative to a given situation or context) and particularism (invoking social and cultural norms or traditional values to justify non-compliance with universal human rights guarantees) with increasing fierceness. In other words, what used to be theoretical challenges to the principle of universality of human rights now permeate political dynamics and multilateral negotiations – making it increasingly harder to achieve (or sometimes even maintain) consensus.

Objectives

This research aimed at taking stock of and contributing to a better understanding of the above-mentioned challenges to the principle of universality of human rights while also questioning their validity. The research team notably examined the practice and associated discourse in multilateral forums around the following thematic issues and/or trends:

  • Freedom of expression in the context of digitalization
  • Measures aimed at the protection of minorities and vulnerable groups, and
  • Sexual and reproductive health and rights.

It also paid attention to the following angles: a narrative favouring collective rights (the so-called 3rd generation of human rights) instead of individual rights – while being careful to not simply dismiss the former category; development as a pre-condition for respecting human rights; and the tendency to invoke on State’s sovereignty.

NEWS

News

New Publication Proposes a New Take on Human Rights Universality

28 November 2022

Our new Briefing The Universality of Human Rights: Developing Narratives to Overcome Polarization zooms into the main challenges that the idea of universality faces nowadays and seeks to offer some elements to devise a more consequential and effective narrative of human rights universality to overcome these challenges.

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OUTPUT

Key Publication Proposes a New Take on Human Rights Universality

The Briefing The Universality of Human Rights: Developing Narratives to Overcome Polarization discusses the idea of universality with a twofold purpose.

On the one hand, the briefing zooms into the main challenges that the idea of universality faces nowadays, offering a typology as well as a detailed analysis thereof – backed by examples taken from the practice of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and its surrounding institutions. On the other hand, the briefing seeks to offer some elements on which a more consequential and effective narrative of human rights universality can be devised and put into practice – one that overcomes these challenges and is better able to persuade sceptics.

 In discussing the main contemporary challenges to universality, the briefing zooms into six issue areas where the debates are particularly acute: freedom of expression in the context of digitalization, terrorism and other alleged threats to security, climate change, international investment law, development, and minority rights. This zooming provides a basis on which to start thinking about a new take on human rights universality based on the idea of equal human dignity.

The briefing also addresses the critiques of critical and third-world scholars on human rights universality – critiques which need to be addressed in order to avoid repeating hegemonical practices of the past and discusses the main challenges to human rights universality that are visible in the current practice of the UN human rights system and groups them into three main categories:

  • The contestation of the limits of human rights through the means of restriction and derogation is often used to impair their application to certain persons or groups. This is particularly visible in the current debates on freedom of expression in the context of digitalization and terrorism.
  • The exclusion of human rights altogether from the discussion of certain issues, usually through technical expertise or legalistic arguments. This has historically been the case, for example, with regard to climate change and international investment law.
  • Relativism, or the idea that the values underlying human rights are dependent on the specific cultural, social and local political contexts of each human community. This provides a cover for unjustifiable human rights violations and makes any possibility of accountability and oversight impossible. Instances of relativism are present in the global debates on development and minority rights.

Publications

Cover of the publication

Briefing N° 20: The Universality of Human Rights

August 2022

Pedro José Martinez Esponda

The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

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Minority Issues and Universality

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