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Universal Conception of Human Rights and Its Challenges


Human rights are intercontinental customs, which dictate and determine how different countries handle their citizens and residents. In 1948, United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a policy framework guiding countries towards observing human rights. However, the major factor, which led to this declaration, dates back to the Second World War largely dominated by massive violation of human rights. Many countries saw the need to stop such violations and instead embrace human dignity. Later on, the enactment of numerous human rights treaties saw the concept of human rights become a constituent of international statute.

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Currently, many countries all over the world observe human rights and some have even ratified between four and six human rights treaties. Additionally, the expansion of international human rights law has created yet another valuable academic discipline aimed at protecting human beings from human rights violations. Thus, through the concept of human rights, momentous ideas of justice and ordinary rights prevail. Nevertheless, there must be practical implementation of these ideas in order to control governments from participating things that will otherwise lead to violation of human rights. (Rhoda, 1995, pp. 3-5).

The main aim of setting up and adoption of international human rights laws by United Nations member countries was to encourage international peace and security in the world. Moreover, human rights treaties limit national sovereignty into a scenario where governments observe human rights in line with international trepidation and scrutiny. The larger concept of human rights breaks into seven categories. For example, security rights guarantee protection against annihilation, rape or assassination while liberty rights guarantee citizens the rights to assemble, correlate, express and move freely in their respective countries.

A political right is also a component of human rights that defend the freedom of engaging in politics, protesting and voting without any restraint. Other human rights include due process rights, equality rights, and minority and group rights. The three ensure human rights protection through just legal practice, equality before law and non-discrimination, respectively. In most cases, human rights are universal policies composed of sovereign and burning legal sentences that appear independent from other laws. However, this is the point where human rights challenges emanate. (Freeman, 2002, pp. 2-17).

Universal Conception of Human Rights

Since the end of the cold war, the world has witnessed hesitant attempts aimed at creating a new world dispensation- a new world order. This has resulted into the emergence of global transitions, which have generated diverse social problems rather than creating social solutions. In the last few decades, countries have embarked in political and economic competition thus creating super-power rivalry. The unprecedented growth of discrepancies between Northern countries and Southern countries in terms of richness and admission to resources occurs with the proportionate increase of aggression, dearth and redundancy.

The number of persons without homes continues to increase and in the global arena, the destruction of environment has led to environmental destabilization. At the present, the world faces the worst economic downturn that has led to increase in poverty levels. The current state of the world ranging from emergence of new markets, political groupings, advances in science and technology have resulted into a global village and unmatched demographic shifts. Consequently, the convergence of people and cultures has resulted into increase in tension, bewilderment and clash in line with modification to pluralism. (Ayton-Shenker, 1995, p. 1).

Political leaders and human rights activists continue to urge people to embrace ancient conventions, traditional values and cultures with an aim of safeguarding personal identity. This is because if persons lose their identity, confusion, conflict and violence may result. Moreover, the absence of identity in the midst of change makes people way out to ethnocentricism, bigotry and isolationism. Without question, this ambiance of transition and acute vulnerability have posed new confronts to the establishment of universal human rights all over the world.

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Human rights lawyers and activists are busy researching various modalities of reconciling cultural identity with human rights in order to create a world that observes human rights and dignity. However, it is imperative for these groups to understand the benefits of cultural background to identity and hence, human rights. In a global and multicultural world, the interaction and amalgamation of various cultures is enriching. Nevertheless, if not properly handled, the two processes can sometimes be disorienting.

Universal Human Rights and Cultural Relativism

The topic regarding challenged facing the universal concept of human rights is all about two opposing factions that comprise of Universalists and cultural relativists. Each of these two groups has varied ideologies concerning the whole concept of human rights. For example, Universalists believe that liberal traditions forms the basis of human rights where every human being rightfully acquires human rights due to the fact that the person in human.

In contrast, cultural relativists argue that the foundation of human rights roots from community values and people can only understand human rights if they regard communal faction as an indispensable social unit and not individuals. However, cultural relativism seems to contradict the universal concept of human rights. This is because; many people do not understand how human rights can subsist in a culturally assorted environment. Another big dilemma surrounding the idea of cultural relativism is whether cultural diversity and respect receives recognition in the ever-growing world. Perhaps it is vital to understand the meaning of cultural relativism. (Martin & Nickel, 1980, pp. 165-180).

The world constitutes different communities with different cultural backgrounds. These communities apply their human values to uphold, defend and interpret human rights. However, this will only occur under diverse cultural, tribal and religious customs. This implies that cultural relativism disregards human rights as universal laws and instead asserts them as culturally relative laws. To this point, cultural relativism becomes a challenge to the universal concept of human rights.

This is because, if cultural traditions administer state compliance with intercontinental principles, then one is sure of misuse, contravention and discount of the universal concept of human rights. In other words, the legitimacy accorded to cultural traditions will turn the state into human rights non-compliant. Additionally, the promotion and encouragement of human rights through cultural traditions is subject to State discretion, instead of the international human rights law. Thus, the challenge facing universal human rights from culturally relativistic states is that these states will rather place cultural customs and eccentricities far above comprehensive human rights law and standards. (Sen, 2004, pp. 315-356).


The concept of universality seems to rock horns with international human rights. For example, western liberals believe that Asian, African and Arab perceptions on human rights stand to challenge the concept universality. However, this ideology is lost as there are numerous western liberals and especially from United States, some individuals hold diverse views, which appear to contravene the liberal construal of universal concept of human rights. In fact, there are regions within Africa, Arab and Asia where liberal interpretation of human rights is in accordance with international human rights law.

In fact, United Nations designed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without any illusion and fully aware of the preexisting universal acquiesce to human rights. These authors understood the previous holocaust revulsions and the genocidal effort to destroy European Jewry hence, would not allow such illusion to prevail again. Thus, through optimism and idealism the designers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enacted laws under which governments will operate in order to exude human rights. It took many years to reach an international agreement.

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However, there are still challenges facing the operation of international human rights law. To begin with, different countries have different social problems and values. On the other hand, human rights treaties assume that all countries have similar social problems and values and therefore, need a universal remedy. For instance, most liberals assert that unfair criminal trials are common in at least all countries and that incarnation without fair judicial proceedings id gross violation of human rights and therefore its abolition is necessary.

Nonetheless, in one way or another, countries have similar problems due to resembling institutions like political, judicial, large bureaucracies, financial systems and banking, mass media, legislature, and security forces. Thus, problems emanating from these institutions look similar hence analogous remedies. To certain extent, some basic values are commonsensical, just the same case like cultural value disparities. Be it fundamental values or cultural traditions, people want to life full of opportunities, resources and security. Nowhere in the world are slavery, violence and massacre accepted. (Donnelley, 2003, pp. 41-52).

Radical Capitalism

Another major challenge facing the universal concept of human rights is radical capitalism. This is because the northern and the southern part of the world have divergent views regarding the whole concept. For example, western liberals do not acknowledge social and economic rights. They believe that disparities must exist and that there must be superior countries, which controls inferior countries. Capitalist countries have created a capitalistic culture that asserts economic rights as immaterial and idealistic.

Instead, these countries have chosen to confine themselves into individual and property ownership rights with an aim of demonstrating human rights observation. Radical capitalism possess a challenge to the universal concept of human rights in that it create social minimalism- the credence in fiscal liberty without considering those who may be in dire need. For instance, in United States where Christians constitute societal majority, the concept of social minimalism is so common and any attempt to change radical capitalism is just like any other fallacy. Noticeably, societies that are deeply rooted in radical capitalism do not acknowledge economic freedom hence, a human rights challenge. (Joanne, 2003, p. 1).


This is also a major challenge effacing the universal concept of human rights. Under traditionalism, people believe that traditional rules are paramount to social order and that adoption of international human rights will only contradict them. The communal group, which acts as a basic unit is vital in protecting societal human rights. In most cases, Asian, African and Arab countries are the most affected due to strong traditional adherence. Interestingly, many countries originating from these regions belief that human rights is a doctrine of the west and therefore, should be handled with maximum care rest it contradict social values. (Joanne, 2003, p. 1).

Reactionary Conservatism

The global and multicultural world has embraced new dimensions such as fundamental women rights, gay marriage and homosexual rights, abortion and many others that lead to excessive individualism. These dimensions have not sounded well to a section of societies especially those from Africa, Asia and Arab. Moreover, these dimensions appear adversative to traditionalism and hence breach of social order. In mid 1990s, citizens from Asia challenged western countries on some of these concepts they term human rights and up to now, most Asian countries appear skeptical on this and do not allow their citizens to practice homosexuality or gay marriage.

Left Collectivism

The concept of human rights originated from Western countries. Therefore, many countries outside the Western region would want to disassociate with western culture. To them, this is just part of western culture. Thus, even if the international human rights law provides a framework for protecting citizens from government oppression, other countries perceive them as imperialist tricks hence posing a challenge to the concept of universal human rights. The proponents of western ideologies on human rights are ethno-religious minorities in countries situated outside the West.

Another challenge to the universal concept of human rights is status radicalism where certain groups claim human rights over others. Moreover, under status radicalism, people believe in communal rights rather than individual rights. This will arouse the feelings of those who support individual rights and start challenging status radicalism. Some religious fundamentals can also be a challenge towards the universal concept of human rights. For example, most Christian groups acknowledge God as the sole provider of human rights and not international enactments. (Joanne, 2003, p. 1).

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It is true there are many challenges facing the universal concept of human rights. For example, the abolition of civil liberties, genocide, economic restraints and denial of right to individuals or factions take place in the contemporary society. It is true some cultures deny people human rights but this is never an assertion. Each culture has its own uniqueness aimed at safeguarding human rights. Thus, disparities in norms do not necessarily reflect violation of human rights. Nevertheless, cultural, religious and political perceptions remain fundamental challenges to human rights. In order to abolish some of these challenges, countries must relook the concept of cultural relativism and instead embrace cultural legitimization as a way of protecting human rights.


Ayton-Shenker, D., 1995. The Challenge of Human Rights and Cultural Diversity. [Online]. Web.

Donnelly, J., 2003. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. London: Cornell University Press.

Freeman, M. 2002. Human rights: an interdisciplinary approach. New York: Wiley- Blackwell.

Joanne, B., 2003. The Challenge to International Human Rights. [Online]. Web.

Martin, R. & Nickel, J., 1980. Recent Work on the Concept of Rights. American Philosophical Quarterly, 17, 165-180.

Rhoda, H., 1995. Human Rights and the Search for Community. Boulder: Westview Press.

Sen, A., 2004. Elements of a Theory of Human Rights. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 32, 315-356.

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