Universal Rights?

Are there ‘universal human rights’ that transcend all cultures, religions and national boundaries?

Yes, there are ‘universal human rights.’ By definition, these are laid out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This document was unanimously passed (but Five Soviet states, Saudi Arabia and South Africa abstained).

The universal civil and political rights are:
· right to life, liberty, and security of the person;
· the right to leave and enter one’s own country
· freedom from slavery and torture
· freedom from discrimination, arbitrary arrest, and interferences with privacy
· right to vote
· freedom of thought, peaceful assembly, religion, and marriage.

The economic, social and cultural rights are:
· the right to own property
· the right to work
· the right to maintain an adequate standard of living and health
· the right to an education

Having said that there ARE universal rights, let me fire a couple of shots across the bow:

First of all, and this was keeping me up a little last night, why are the “universal rights” actually western rights? Specifically, let’s look at the whole concept of individuality. I love the western model, but it seems like cultural imperialism to force that on East Asian cultures. In Eastern, Southeastern (except AU and NZ), and Subcontinental Asia, the culture places more value on the whole and harmony than the individual and uniqueness. While the Asian beliefs can be dehumanizing in some ways (mandatory sterilization in India in the early 1980s or one-baby policies in China), in other ways there is a beauty to it. Asians often feel that Western views of individualism are selfish and egotistical. Both models have benefits and detriments but are incompatible at a certain level and yet the international community has ‘chosen’ one model and seeks to impose it on others.

Secondly, while it’s easy to put your name on a piece of paper, its harder to walk-the-walk… there are a plethora of exceptions to these Universal Human Rights. Are these exceptions truly exceptions or are they the tip of the iceberg and, in fact, the norm? Most dangerous, again, are the twin issues of hypocrisy and consistency. Are the signatories of the UNDHR walking-the-walk? Let me relist the rights and some possible exceptions (please forgive me):

Part I: The civil and political rights are:

· right to life, liberty, and security of the person
A) liberty and security are often opposites, not complimentary: the more liberty, the less security and the more security, the less liberty
B) Canada is known for their strong voice in international law and they are a signatory to the UNDHR, but have a pattern of failing to protect indigenous women:
http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR200012004
C) How about Mexico’s women of Juarez?

· the right to leave and enter one’s own country
A) Educated Russians are not allowed to leave their country, even on vacation, because Russia fears they won’t come back. Cubans can’t leave their country. North Koreans can’t leave theirs.

· freedom from slavery and torture
A) slavery:
labor Benin, Haiti, Togo, Nigeria, Gabon, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia
http://www.infoplease.com/spot/slavery1.html
B) sex slavery in Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Korea, Eastern Europe, Russia
http://archives.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/europe/03/08/women.trafficking/index.html
American sex slavery: Americans buying Mexican sex slaves and American women being kidnapped and turned into sex slaves in Asia
http://archives.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/europe/03/08/women.trafficking/index.html
http://www.afajournal.org/2004/april/404culture.asp
http://gvnet.com/humantrafficking/USA.htm
C) torture:
Hmm…Guantamino Bay, Bagram and Abu Ghraib prisons…?

· freedom from discrimination, arbitrary arrest, and interferences with privacy
hello? umm…Jose Padilla anyone? How about Humberto Alvarez-Machain? Let’s not even start on the Patriot Act…

· right to vote
A) With no ‘universal’ age of majority, there is an issue. In addition, in the US there are some that are calling for the voting age to be lowered to 16. The US has long had a problem with consistency in terms of age of majority (voting, drinking, joining the military, renting cars, etc –these are all separated). In addition, with the lowering of the age in which a person can be jailed for life (under 18 now in many states), shouldn’t the age of voting be lowered to correspond.
B) States like Germany and Israel (ironic, huh?) who define citizenship by religion or ethnicity. In Germany, multigenerational Turks can’t vote and yet a German-American can move to Germany and become a citizen/vote the next day. In Israel, Christian, Druze, and Muslim Palestinians have to jump through almost impossible hoops to become citizens of the very country that their families have lived in for thousands of years. In many cases, these disenfranchised peoples have more claim to the land than the Sephardic and Russian Jews who have immigrated to Israel in just the last few decades.

· freedom of thought, peaceful assembly, religion, and marriage.
How can you impose freedom of marriage on societies that are still governed by the economic system created by arranged marriages?

Part II: The economic, social and cultural rights are:

· the right to own property
In and of itself, this is again Western cultural imperialism: What about indigenous peoples who don’t want the right to individually own property? Maoris and Aborigines who had their land taken in the name of property ownership? What about the people of Mexico? When the US forced Mexico to change Article 24 of their Constitution, in the name of owning property, it destroyed rural Mexican society (and directly led to the displacement of Mexican people and thus contributed to a dramatic increase in immigration)

· the right to work
Just as one example, North Africans in France and issue of job discrimination
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4399748.stm

· the right to maintain an adequate standard of living and health
Does this necessitate a national health system (like Medicare/Medicaid) for every nation-state in the world? Does it necessitate, not just a ‘right to work,’ but a guarantee to work (because otherwise how do you guarantee an adequate standard of living without income?)

· the right to an education
The Taliban government in Afghanistan is now well known or their failure to recognize women’s right to an education.
http://www.hrw.org/worldreport99/women/women3.html
Here’s a piece on educational discrimination in Liberia:
http://www.mercycorps.org/countries/liberia/1126

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