While the notion of human rights as “universal” is a legal fiction, as I have said in a previous post, I would like to argue against the claim that imposing the basic conventions on human rights, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is an act of cultural imperialism.

Yes, the notion of human rights is a politically “liberal” one — that is, within the liberal tradition, which includes John Stuart Mill and John Locke — and this is largely a Western liberal project. This is supposed to signal to us that it should only be accepted and practiced in Western liberal democracies. We therefore cannot make the claim that human rights conventions should be legitimate in other cultures. I want to argue against this.

However, instead of arguing from evidence within other cultures, like scholarship in Islam or Southeast Asia, about which I risk misinterpreting common practice, I would like to articulate this point using Western liberal ideas. Although this is a relatively unsympathetic and somewhat “hard-line” approach to other cultures, it is not self-defeating, and we should feel compelled to take this hard-line approach if our understanding of human rights is such that we think they should be upheld everywhere in the world. I describe this as hard-line because it looks within the very tradition which is being criticized for justification of its practice rather than looking to the plaintiff’s culture for reasons and ambiguities leading to compatibility with Western liberal ideas. So my aim is to establish the Western idea of human rights everywhere, although I disagree that human rights are universal. So I will call this a kind of soft universalism.

Based on the work of the liberal tradition, we can defend the notion of human rights against the claims of imperialism using liberal justifications such as those put forth by Alasdair MacIntyre. The basic justification for Western practices goes something like this. We can explain what our culture is doing, and what other cultures are doing, better than other cultures can describe it themselves. After all, this is the basic justification for Western disciplines like cultural anthropology and sociology. A tribesman in New Guinea cannot explain what the Western anthropologist is doing, or why, and what the motives are.

Yet the Western anthropologist can explain what the tribesman is doing, and why, and what his motives are. The tribesman can only explain what he is doing, and he explain how to live the life of tribesman. The explanatory tools of the Western anthropologist are far more powerful than the tribesman’s since the anthropologist relates this information to a wide panoply of scholarship which can explain why, in fact, the tribesmen live there in the first place, their migratory patterns, their marriage behaviors and so on. In MacIntyre’s view, the culture with the greatest worldliness appears to have the greatest explanatory power, whereas those who are mostly provincial can explain very little about the world they live in.

We have all sorts of disciplines in the Western liberal tradition which purport to explain social phenomena in every culture. And these come with the basic assumption that our tools are in fact so powerful and compelling that we can use them to describe, predict, and control (our scientific method) all social phenomena. If other cultures would wish to have the same explanatory powers, they would presumably embark on the same kind of project that Western liberalism has, beginning with the development of the kind of encyclopedic thought in the Enlightenment Era.

The critique that the concept of human rights developed from Western liberal practices, and that somehow this renders them invalid in other parts of the world, is therefore grossly inane. Our Western thinkers, to whom appeals about human rights are always made, are attacked with ad hominems and genetic fallacies about their own historical contexts. British thinkers like Mill are said to be implicated in the running of empire, the British Empire. This does not invalidate his work, nor would it invalidate any work. Only once it has been invalidated can we use Foucaldian explanations to describe its failure. Some critics, in fact, go so far as to argue on the basis of religion that, since Western thinkers have historically been socialized into Christian societies, their ideas are unacceptable. Iranian and Egyptian legal scholars have made this claim.

Yet Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran priest, has made this claim as well. So we already have exceptions to the imperialist critique. In 1981 the Iranian representative to the UN, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, argued that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a “secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition” which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing Shari’a Law.

If we look at the fundamental rights listed in the Universal Declaration, we see nothing by way of cultural imperialism. Unless of course, inhumane practices in other cultures must be preserved at a cost. The declaration cannot be seen as an attack upon other cultures, since of course, it is also an attack upon Western liberal democracy as well. Very few Western liberal democracies uphold human rights.

If human rights conventions are something to which a culture cannot commit, one only needs to look at the countries which have committed and thus far have not complied wholly. One purpose of such a convention is to use it as a tool to badger human rights violators into compliance. If a country cannot hold fair trials in their territories or cannot imagine a world in which they cannot torture their prisoners, this is not a failure of the human rights declaration, it is a failure of that country.

This is how it should be viewed. The human rights declaration holds every member to a higher standard, and this standard is not something that should be negotiated in ways that compromise its integrity.