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The Origins Of The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights

1766 words - 7 pages

According to Xiaorong Li, there is no debate as to the Western origins of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (2001 81; 86). However, while this may be true, as is demonstrated by the similarities between the UDHR and the French Declarations, such intellectual origins should not lead us to mistake the UDHR as a product of Western cultural imperialism (Stephen Marks 1998, 511). This is important to note, for with regards to the universal applicability of the UDHR such intentions must be made clear. What we must ask ourselves is, is the UDHR a tool by which all humans can free themselves from the injustice of physical repression and the political oppression, regardless of their geographical location and cultural heritage, as Stephen Marks claims? (1998, 511). Or, is is it a disguised attempt by the West to to obstruct the development of other regions ?(Li 2001, 82). I will argue in accordance with Susan Walts, that the UDHR is ultimately the product of generations of human beings who have worked together to establish a benchmark for good governance (2001, 71-2). Its universal legitimacy, therefore deriving from its birth as a political document and the fact that as such it is open to interpretation and elaboration as new understandings of human rights challenges arise (Walts 2001, 71-2), for this is in keeping with our human nature.

The legitimacy of the UDHR is often questioned due to different interpretations and opinions over what human rights are and how they should be applied with regards to state sovereignty. Richard Bilders points out, that such differences are the result of the different perspectives which have emerged between the Western developed nations, whose emphasis is on civil and political rights, and the developing and socialist nations, whose emphasis is on economic and social rights (2004, 14). While such differences in interpretation are to be expected given the diversity of our cultural histories, what we need to be clear about is whether or not such interpretations serve to maintain the power of dominant groups, who seek to manipulate cultural norms for their own advantage (Abdullahi An Na'im 1992, 38). This is worth noting, for according to Li, 'cultural differences' such as Asian 'community' values, can be appropriated by the state system as a way avoiding human rights obligations to those within their territory whose interests conflict with those interests that support the dominant position of the current regime (Li 2001, 84). Thus, while 'cultural identity' serves a purpose, in that it preserves a sense of significance informed by history (An Na'im 1992 27), it can also be used by corrupt governments as a way of evading the responsibility to uphold and protect the rights of individuals who live as part of that community.

While culture should to some extent be accommodated, due to its being an expression of the right to self-determination and unique self-identity (An Na'im 1992, 27), such accommodation...

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