Perhaps the thorniest of conflicts within the realm of international human rights involves the question of whether claims of universality are merely attempts to impose Western values upon the rest of the world. Recall that inherent in the definition of human rights is an assumption of universality. This is not necessarily problematic in itself — indeed, it is desirable that human rights not be reserved for some and made inaccessible to others.
However, the philosophical foundations for the universality of human rights have never been thoroughly demonstrated. In the absence of a satisfactory grounding for human rights, theorists are compelled to fall back upon mere assertions as to the self-evident nature of particular human rights; such dated essentialism has no answer to diverse moral systems that object to the existence of these asserted rights.9
Skeptics point to the distinctly Western origin of the language of rights and argue that rights cannot be found in non-Western moral systems. This view claims that the absence of any consideration of moral notions comparable to rights makes the presumed universality of human rights dubious at best.10 Once the diversity of moral systems is taken into account, it becomes difficult to understand why the presumption of universality could endure so long without being seriously questioned.
Some critics assert that the problem derives from the psychological predisposition of human beings to generalize from their perspectives, and claim that western philosophers are especially prone to projective their moral categories on others.11 For example, traditional Kantian moral theory is based upon the assumption that human beings are “ends in themselves,” a statement that itself requires an underlying foundation but instead presumes that the rational process bears a single and universal result irrespective of cultural differences.
It is only within a universe of shared values that the presumption of universality encounters no difficulties. Various international human rights instruments have remained controversial precisely because they contain values that are not shares on a worldwide basis.12 The United Declaration of Human Rights contains rights that openly express Western liberal values that may not be compatible with the many value systems of the world. Scholar S.P. Sinha argues that “to the extent these kinds of rights are concerned, we have the scenario of one particular culture, or one particular ideology, or one particular political system claiming to be imposed upon the entire world” (1978: 144). He further cautions that it is self-defeating for the human rights movement to impose such a system upon the entire world and then “retire in the smug delusion that having done that, justice has thereby been achieved for the individual.” (1978: 159)
For the skeptic, to assert the existence of universal standards is ethnocentric. The recognition of moral diversity calls into question the presumption of universality and leaves the concept of human rights prone to deterioration into senseless relativism.
Those who reject the charge of Western imperialism, on the other hand, acknowledge the historical influence of Western legal traditions on the international arena, but argue that the rights agreed upon are not exclusively Western moral and political values (Twiss 1998). This view asserts that human rights represent a modern social practice that embodies explicit intercultural and international recognitions of crucial conditions of personal and communal flourishing. The practice of enumerating human rights endeavors to specify human interests of such fundamental importance that they ought to be socially guaranteed by otherwise diverse political and social systems (Twiss 1998).
Scholar Sumner Twiss, rather than perceiving the lack of philosophical grounding as a fault, argues that it operates to the advantage of human rights that they are not themselves strongly associated with any particular set of metaphysical or epistemological claims necessarily incompatible with cultural moral views (1998). He asserts that the international practice of human rights is compatible with a wide range of sociopolitical systems.
This implies that human rights can be compatible with both liberal and communitarian societies and traditions, and that rights are, in a significant sense, theory-neutral — they permit broad diversity ad the societal and cultural level, and resist attempts to locate human rights within any one political theory or system to the exclusion of all others (Twiss 1998). Twiss is careful to distinguish that theory-neutrality does not mean moral neutrality; human rights obviously have significant moral content. The claim is only that this moral content can be affirmed by otherwise diverse cultural moral traditions and sociopolitical systems. He uses this point to deflect the charge of Western imperialism:
“…. Given the pragmatic character of this international practice, its theoretical neutrality, and its openness to diverse support at the internal cultural level, it is incorrect to claim that human rights presuppose Western competitive individualism or related conceptions of self and society” (1998: 274)
The drafters of the UDHR circumvented the problem of whether universality insinuated Western imperialism by opting to reach a pragmatic agreement on a set on essential human rights norms with the recognition that, given the diversity of the world’s cultural and philosophical systems and traditions, no deeper theoretical agreement would be possible (Third Committee 1948). Agreement on practical norms that protected human dignity and welfare was deemed sufficient. Nevertheless, the lack of explicit justification continues to leave the notion of universal human rights vulnerable to attack.