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Crisis of Western Human Rights: No Answer for the Suffering Millions Globally

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Amit, our Editor-at-Large (Europe) critiques human rights, which is essentially a Western concept. His erudite research shows how the West has been conveniently shifting the goal posts, often using it as a tool to control the nations that do not toe their line. These are the reasons due to which human rights have become limited in its acceptance, and, thus, its implementation. A Different Truths exclusive, as part of the Special Feature.   

Human rights are not what most of us, think today. Rights had been born as the first prerogatives of citizens; these citizens were earlier, white male, educated, had possessions and a membership of the state, rest of the population such as women, slaves and foreigner were excluded from the protection of human rights. Those were not defined within this framework were risk risked becoming “non-humans,” without membership and therefore without protection (Samuel Moyn, 2012). 

 Thus, there is a clear and fundamental difference between earlier rights, all predicated on belonging to a political community, and eventual “human rights.” Thus, it is apparent that human rights – originally – was not inclusive rather discriminatory, selective and homophobic.

Human rights are the hegemonic language of our times – a language in which nations rich or poor, big or small, power or powerless-frame their moral and humanitarian outrage against the incidences which normally shock the conscience and moral of the human kind, such as war, genocide, bombing, loss of human lives in large numbers.

However, the hegemonic extent of the human rights discourse is such that it has formed a language of ‘moral imperialism’ as Richard Rorty would say. And, this moral imperialism – to some extent – is run by the former imperial powers of the West, namely Europe and America. In their human rights discourse – human rights violations (racism, discrimination, maltreatment to refugees) happening at the domestic front is not a major concern, rather, their moral outrage in form of human rights critiques often directed towards weak and poor countries of the South (Asian, Latin America, African). In Samuel Moyn’s words, “The one implied a politics of citizenship at home, the other a politics of suffering abroad”.

Problem with Human Rights Discourse 

Above para of this article provides an answer which most of human rights defenders in Southern countries would ask – why human rights movement failed to take off take off in their homelands, as it happened in the West. My elaboration on this point is: because human rights discourse was never the part of majority movements in South. Human rights are not part of the organic culture (because it has a western origin); imposed on South by West; a neo-colonial project oriented to form a world order West wants.

Most of movements/struggle in South has organised under the banners of constitutional rights, hardly invoking human rights except in feminist and in some labour movements. Human rights being purely western-centric, has been a tool of formal imperial powers to regulate poor and weak countries of the South. In fact, human right is more or less a diplomatic tool of powerful nations to maintain balance in the world of diplomacy as Samuel Moyn (2012) has claimed in the utopia of human rights.

Another problem with the acceptance of the human right is its specific Western type values/morality. It was primarily Christian values and western concept of morality and justice in which discourse of modern human rights was caste and promulgated. Rest of the world morality-values of other major religions and cultures were excluded from human rights discourse.  With passing times, this crisis has become more complicated particularly when universalistic notions of human rights strongly enforced on all nations disregarding regional, cultural and moral particularities.

Whose Human Rights:  West vs. Rest?

The universality of human rights was always doubtful though Jack Donnelly believe that human rights are universal that’s why is applicable to all humans. However, human rights cannot be universal due to some reasons. It is created and dominated by major western powers; United Nations Declarations of Human Rights (UDHR) were primarily conceived and drafted by the former imperial power of the West.  Even today, due to its vague definition, the western nations define human rights according to their own strategic interest, also, they strive for its forceful implementation under the pretexts of ‘right to protection’ or ‘humanitarian intervention’. In addition, not only, it is Western powers that call the shots in United Nations Security Council but also plays a deciding role in attacking and sanctioning nations that are considered rouge or not toeing the lines of human rights standards set by the West. 

No wonder, the discourse of human rights is increasingly being seen as another colonial tool to maintain empires by imperial powers. Countries of Latin Americas, African and Asian – view human rights with loads of suspicion – making human rights implementation difficult within their jurisdictions.

Human rights are also considered a part of neo-liberal policies. The neo-liberal policy of globalisation supports, democracy free market, unbridled capitalism (which journalist William Pfaff has referred as “unregulated capitalism,”) thus, exploitation of working classes. Due to the close proximity of human rights to such discourse, human rights are not appreciated by the masse of South, rather consider a tool to penetrate poor countries and colonise their market and gradually their domestic politics via World Bank and International Monetary Funds (IMF).

Nevertheless, human rights are understood to encompass exclusively the civil and political rights of the individual, with economic, social, and cultural rights being put aside. Indeed, the neoliberal repudiation of a socially activist government and of public-sector approaches to human well-being is an implicit rejection of many of the standards of human rights that are present in the Universal Declaration and the two covenants. It is relevant to note that many of those provisions of the Declaration that are regarded as being of utmost importance in countries of the South are those that are treated as non-existent by the North (Falk, 1998). Against this background, human rights seem a political project of West reconstructing a new world order in their own interest.

However, another reason, which makes human rights discourse susceptible to criticism, is its double use. Example, America has drastically shifted its human rights policy to China – from criticising its human records to doing business with it. The opposing faces of realist manipulation of human rights have both been exemplified by the approach taken by the Clinton Administration to its relationship with China. So long as the issue of human rights made for good domestic ideological posturing within the United States, it seemed beneficial to highlight China’s responsibility for its miserable human rights record. But the attention of American political leaders began to shift in 1997 to China’s role in the hoped-for recovery from the Asian fiscal crisis, and its role as an economic superpower and major trading partner. At that point, it became desirable to downplay China’s human rights.

Another point of concerns are, the discourse of human rights has been used to destabilise countries which do not fit into the western democratic model of the nations.  Covert operations were often relied upon to disguise this sponsorship of an anti-democratic “solution.” Among the more notorious instances of antidemocratic intervention are the restoration to power of the Shah in Iran (1953), the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala (1954), and the efforts to destabilise the Allende government in Chile (1970–73).

Interestingly, it is usually the case that the displacement of democratic governance is accompanied by a dramatic deterioration in human rights (Falk, 1998). As above examples have proved this.

While some see human right as the voice of the voiceless, while few have considered it as morally fraudulent (Douzinas, 2000). Whereas, some see it as sinister imperialism in diplomatic manoeuvres animating each other.  In addition, the overproduction of human rights standards and norms’ with the insistence on their universality and interdependence” has posed another serious problem in its universal acceptance. Needless to say, against this background it is easier to prove the reason why western human rights are facing resistance in its universal acceptance.

However, human rights are fired by the idea of respecting human dignity and morality. And, the idea of ‘human dignity’ justice and peace found in every culture since most of the cultures around the globe have some ‘sense of justice’ –more or less. Thus, an alternative to Western human rights can be developed from the intercultural framework from various religion/cultures which has been excluded from Western-centric human rights discourse. This ‘alternative to human rights’ may have more possibility of implementation and acceptance comparatively due to its organic nature, thus, the alternative of human rights is possible (Santosh, 2015).


Douzinas, C (2000) The Triumph of Humanity: From 1789 to 1989 and from Natural to Human Rights in The End of Human Rights Critical Legal Thought at The Turn of the Century, Oxford Press, Belgium.

Moyn, S (2012) The Last Utopia Human Rights in History, Harvard University Press.

Santosh, B. (2015) If God were a Human Rights Activist, Stanford University, California. 

©Amit Singh

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