Are Human Rights Universal?

Even in our globalizing world, the question as to whether "human rights" is an essentially Western concept, which ignores the very different cultural, economic, and political realities of the South, persists. Can the values of a consumer society be applied to societies with nothing to consume? At the risk of sounding frivolous: When you stop a man in traditional dress from beating his wife, are you upholding her human rights or violating his?

The fact is that a number of serious objections exist to the concept of universal human rights, which its defenders need to acknowledge - honestly - if only to refute them.

The first objection argues that all rights and values are defined and limited by cultural perceptions; there is no universal culture, therefore there are no universal human rights. Some philosophers object that the concept of human rights is founded on an individualistic view of man as an autonomous being whose greatest need is to be free from interference by the state, imbued, as it were, with the right to be left alone. Non-Western societies often espouse a communitarian ethic that sees society as more than the sum of its individual members, and considers duties to be more important than rights.

Then there is the usual North/South argument, with "human rights" cast as a cover for Western intervention in the developing world. Developing countries, some also argue, cannot afford human rights, since the tasks of nation-building and economic development remain unfinished; suspending or limiting human rights thus sacrifices the few to benefit the many.