Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights impose Western values?: Gita Sehgal

The Indian freedom fighter was a key drafter

Guest post by GITA SEHGAL

10 December was Human Rights Day, anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Does the idea of human rights with their firm assertions, their belief in the ‘rule of law’ and their globalised vision, remain relevant in the world? The idea that there are absolute standards has come under attack from both the left and the right. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre , author of ‘After Virtue’, said, Natural rights and self evident truths proclaimed in the American declaration of independence are tantamount to belief in witches and unicorns. While from the left,  in ‘Human Rights and Empire’, Costas Douzinas has called human rights the political philosophy of cosmopolitanism and argued that human rights now codify and ‘constitutionalise ‘ the normative sources of Empire.

Those fighting the attempts by the Bush administration to tear up human rights prohibitions on torture, would be surprised to see themselves as empire builders. The only weapons they had were the Constitutions of their countries and the human rights system, with its unequivocal rejection of torture. While recent developments in human rights may certainly be used to justify foreign military interventions on humanitarian grounds, a vast body of human rights law also limits the abusive power of the state and protects the freedom of the individual. But are these freedoms ones that are derived from ‘the West’ and therefore limited in their application?  States affiliated to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) certainly seem to think so. In the 1980s and 90s Islamic states drafted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, as an alternative declaration.

The idea that different peoples were endowed with separate rights would have seemed absurd in the middle of the twentieth century to those struggling against colonial oppression or trying to build new nations. The barbarity unleashed on the world by a global war, was certainly in the minds of delegates. But so too was the yearning to build a better world  within the nation-state, as well as limiting foreign aggression and war.  ‘It was imperative that the peoples of the world should recognize the existence of a code of civilized behavior which would apply not only in international relations but also in domestic affairs’, said Begum Shaista Ikramullah, a member of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan  and a delegate of the UN in 1948.

Susan Waltz, is one of the scholars who has done much to recover stories such as the role of Begum Ikramullah and others in  the forgotten history of the drafting of the UDHR. Her work shows how mistaken many assumptions are about this foundational document. Eleanor Roosevelt is  often seen as the single author of the Declaration, since she chaired the drafting Committee. Civil and political rights are seen as classical ‘Western’ concerns, whilst social and economic rights are thought to have been advocated for by the Soviet bloc.

In fact, as Waltz shows, Roosevelt supplied neither the text nor the substantive ideas that shaped the UDHR. Ricardo Alfaro, former President of Panama, proposed the idea and first draft of such a Declaration, which was taken up by many others including public intellectuals such as HG Wells. While early drafts were worked on by Rene Cassin of France, along with many US lawyers, each clause was voted on by member states, and many suggestions came from drafters from small and newly de-colonised states. The Latin American states promoted  social and economic rights, while the Soviet Union concentrated on racial discrimination – a convenient way of bashing the US, as well as colonial states.

The  desire for emancipation of all, emphasising that rights applied to everyone everywhere, emerged as a major concern. Significant additions were made by newly de-colonised states regarding, slavery, discrimination, the rights of women and the right to national self determination.

Two of the most important drafters were Hansa Mehta of India, and Charles Malik of Lebanon, who was Committee Rapporteur. Hansa Mehta, an extraordinary activist and brave member of the Constituent Assembly in India,  was responsible for the wording of the Article I ‘All human beings are equal in dignity and rights,’arguing that if the word men was used, it would not be regarded as inclusive but rather taken to exclude women. She was the key figure who ensured gender equality in the document.

Yugoslavia proposed that human rights should apply to the peoples of non-self governing and trust territories. Carlos Romulo of the Philippines argued that full rights should be given to the colonies. Article 2, thereby ensures non-discrimination ( a standard clause that came to be adopted in all treaties) on the grounds  of race, class property, social origin and so on; but it also ensures that subject peoples were also endowed with rights. ‘no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.’

Political differences were very evident. But the arguments were not necessarily divisions between blocs. There were political divisions among Muslims on religion and marriage, two very contentious areas. Saudi Arabia objected to Article 16 on the right to choice in marriage. Begum Ikramullah opposed the Saudi view making a speech against child marriage. She accepted equal rights in marriage on the grounds that equal did not necessarily mean the same. Egypt’s Wahid Rafaat accepted the language on marriage, noting that marriage limitations based on race ( as in the US) were more shocking to his country than limitations based on religion or nationality. The clause on marriage, in short, was fought for by a range of opinion to form an egalitarian and adult basis for marriage which was absent then from most countries whether eastern or western.

The clause on being able to exercise freedom of religion was supported by a number of Muslim delegates. The Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Zafrallah Khan, quoted the Qur’an ‘Let him who chooses believe, believe and him who chooses to disbelieve, disbelieve.’ He believed that the right to change religion was consistent with Islam. Moahammed Habib from India, supported the statement as consistent with the Constitution of India. However, Saudi Arabia objected to it, and eventually abstained from voting on the Declaration itself. No-one voted against the Declaration, although Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the Soviet bloc abstained, with 50 countries voting for it.

Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, member of the drafting sub-Committee, wrote“I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality.  In the Great Hall…there was an atmosphere of genuine solidarity and brotherhood among men and women from all latitudes, the like of which I have not seen again in any international setting.”

(Gita Sahgal is a founder of the Centre for Secular Space which opposes fundamentalism, amplifies secular voices and promotes universality in human rights. She was formerly Head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International. This article is reproduced from with permission from the author.)

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8 thoughts on “Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights impose Western values?: Gita Sehgal”

  1. I especially liked Gita’s comment on some misguided leftists who criticise the concept of human rights. Such misguided views, many of them still wrapped in the competitive language of Cold War, fail to see the empowering role human rights have acquired for the marginalised and discriminated.

  2. Dear Mr Pritam Singh,

    If, by “misguided leftists”, you were alluding to Sehgal’s reference to Costas Douzinas, then I wonder what you are — merely misguided? The Left’s critique of the human rights discourse in its currently dominant forms is perfectly valid. What Douzinas says is that human rights as a concept is double-edged — it has both liberatory and oppressive possibilities. When it becomes a rallying point for resistance, it can be emancipatory. But it is also susceptible to being used as a shield by the very forces against which the battles of emancipation are being waged, viz,. “the humanitarian wars” of the US. If we are not alert to this gap between human rights as an ideal and human rights as an ideological shield, then human rights as a construct will lose its subversive edge — Douzinas sums it up succinctly when he says it will end up with “the humanitarian-military project substituting the industrial-military project.” We already see this happening, don’t we?

    By ignoring, and making light of, the very real ways in which global capital/empire appropriates the human rights discourse for its own oppressive ideological uses, Gita Sehgal has written a seriously flawed piece.

    1. By ignoring, and making light of, the very real ways in which global capital/empire appropriates the human rights discourse for its own oppressive ideological uses, Gita Sehgal has written a seriously flawed piece.

      I am not sure that Gita Sehgal has either ignored or made light of the ways in which “human rights issues” can be appropriated by different parties for their own ends. At any rate, this is nothing new, at least in India. During colonialism, many thinkers noted how the British used their “concern for Indian women” to justify their presence. In independent India, during the Shah Bano affair, Madhu Kishwar noted how different parties (the Hindu right, the press etc.) used their alleged “concern for Muslim women” to pursue their own agenda. It is worth quoting her in this regard:

      … ever since the Supreme Court judgment in the Shahbano case, the newspapers have been gleefully reporting each case of a Muslim woman getting maintenance in the
      lower courts as yet another “victory”—in seeming ignorance of the fact that many such awards were made prior to the Shahbano judgment.

      The spirit of the attack on Muslim law that is being carried on today has an interesting historical parallel. After the British succeeded in firmly establishing their rule in India in the
      nineteenth century, one of the main ideological weapons they used to justify their domination over Indians was to claim they had a mission to reform what they characterised as the “uncivilised” and “backward” state of Indian society. They arrogated to
      themselves a “civilising” role. Their favourite symbol of the “unreformed” state of Indian society was the plight of Indian women. Customs such as Sati, child marriage, female seclusion, and ban on widow remarriage were used as proof of the backward state of
      Hindu society, much in the same way as Hindus are today using burkah, talaq, and other discriminatory aspects of Muslim personal law and practice to “prove” how barbaric and
      backward Muslims and Islam are.

      Of course, we all should be sensitive to the ways in which the human rights agenda can be manipulated by interested parties for their own ends. It does not, however, follow that human rights concerns are misplaced any more than concerns about Sati, child marriage and so on were misplaced. Indeed, Kishwar herself adds

      In both cases, the issues picked up are indeed valid issues in their own right. However, in both cases, the motivation behind the ostensible concern is of greater importance than the issues picked up, because the motivation largely determines the actual outcome of the campaign undertaken.

      The fact that legitimate concerns can hide very different motivations creates a problem for human rights activists. I don’t know this can be effectively addressed. I suspect there isn’t a clear answer.

  3. whenever we started to something in personified form, questions of ‘now-where’ emerges. human rights in a phenomenon has same pathways. in case of India if we try to see human rights without reducing citizenry practices it becomes really complicated to contemplate anything from the idea of human rights. ‘geopolitical speaking’ only tells that for instance for atrocities on dalits using metaphor ‘hidden apartheid’. it is highly intricate to interpret that how India- under the garb of universal declaration is going to render rights for victims of ‘salwa-judum’- a case of human v/s human.

  4. The key question would be, how universal is the notion of Human Rights ? An Indian lady may have helped to draft the UNDHR, but Indians, both men and women, have proven to be more apathetic to human rights abuses than say Egyptian men or women. I base my thesis on a comparison between two human rights abuses and how their respective societies responded.

    1. The abuse in Tahrir square, Egypt, where a veiled lady being disrobed by policemen with one of them stamping on her breasts,

    and the wave of reaction felt by the authorities

    2. Death of a 50 year old lady protestor beaten by Indian police in Delhi’s Ramlila grounds, reported here

    and the response, much more muted and subdued !

    The declaration is universal, but the sanctity of human rights is, I am afraid, is not !

  5. Two points here: a brief reply to Chris and a short comment on Ram’s contribution.

    Chris, my concern was not only Douzinas though I do think that there is a one sidedness sometimes in his articulation of his positions on human rights. My concern is that a there is one stream in the left (internationally) which has an undialectical way of approaching the human rights issue. During the Cold War, most leftists (especially those in the Stalinist tradition) viewed human rights as a suspect issue because they considered that human rights discourse was used to attack communism. They did not capture the emancipatory aspects of human rights. Now another variant of the Left simply equates human rights with neo-liberalism. The point is not that there was no weight in the Stalinist suspicion of human rights discourse during the Cold War and in the anti-human rights left’s seeing a link between human rights agenda and neoliberal imperialist politics. The point is that these two positions are undialectical. In today’s world, human rights are an empowering weapon in the hands of poor and marginalised sections of society (workers under threat of redundancy, peasants fearing land enclosures, tribals loosing their natural resources, immigrants losing vital legal rights and so on). A dialectical and, therefore, sensible strategy on the part of the left is not to allow human rights to be appropriated by the neo-liberals but to sharpen the tools of human rights investigations and struggles to further the cause of the weak and marginalised. If you are interested in understanding the position I am articulating in both its theoretical formulation as well as its application, I refer you to my book Economy, Culture and Human Rights: Turbulence in Punjab, India and Beyond (Delhi, 2010)

    I completely agree with that the hegemonic political culture in India is anti-human rights. The media has always presented the human rights struggles as undermining India’s role in global political arena. The hegemonic Indian discourse on India’s unity and integrity has tried to present human rights struggles as a potential threat to India’s unity and integrity. Therefore, the human rights activists are branded as anti- national. The worst part of this human rights scenario in India is that this discourse has influenced even a section of the left in India especially the Stalinist left.

  6. Thanks for your excellent discussion of this important issue. A careful examination of the history of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is found in Mary Ann Glendon’s book: A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She is s Professor at the Harvard Law School and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.

    I am a retired U.S. lawyer from a major law firm in MInneapolis, Minnesota. My specialty was business litigation, and I had no knowledge of, or interest in, international human rights for the first 19 years of my practice. That changed for me in the mid-1980’s when I started to learn about refugee and asylum law and when I made my first trip to El Salvador in April 1989. I vividly remember seeing a framed copy of the Universal Declaration on the wall of the office of Comadres (Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared and the Assassinated) in San Salvador. It was evidence of the inspirational and aspirational importance of the Universal Declaration. (This is discussed in my 5/25/11 Post: My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989.)

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