Universal Human Rights as an Unrealistic Ideal

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Universal Human Rights as an Unrealistic Ideal


When the international community ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948, it created a shared human rights standard for all countries to work towards (Gariepy, 2016). From the time the standard begun to be implemented, states were able to govern their citizens freely, and the new global ideology henceforth emphasized democratic equality and a shift from the old racial and imperial ideals (Blumenson, 2015). Nearly all political systems in the world have committed themselves in some way to the declaration, making individual human rights a global ideal (Donnelly, 2007). Even with the guidelines and commitments however, there arises the question of whether universal human rights are attainable (De Bolla, 2014). The achievement of human rights for everyone is an unrealistic ideal because the rights are not truly universal therefore uniformly accepted and pursued. This paper discusses the global human rights objective, arguing that its subjectivity and inability to be universal makes it unattainable.

Why Human Rights Will Remain an Ideal

For individual human rights to be embraced or even noticed when achieved, they need to be truly universal. However, according to Donnelly (2007), many scholars do not agree that there can be anything worth being referred to as universal human rights. Blumenson (2015) argues that human rights should ideally have universality, so that they provide a moral norm whose obligations and protections will be applicable everywhere around the world, with the outcome being greater dignity and rights for everyone simply because they are human. Tharoor (2000) believes that the suggestion of human rights being universal is only supported by scholars from western societies at a time when it is opposed by those from other parts. Ochoa & Greene (2011) recommend that for the objective of human rights for everyone to be possible, they should be able to be used as a tool in the protection of communities. However, this does not seem likely as Omar & Ahmed (2010) indicate that many decades after adoption of the UDHR and the creation of many other treaties, conventions and even domestic legislations, consistent violations of human rights continue globally. These often relate to violence against children and women, destructive impacts of ‘the war on terror’, excessive prioritization of state security at the expense of the rights and security of individual citizens and punitive handling of ‘illegal immigrants’.

The process of the UDHR’s formulation as a guideline is likely to make universal human rights mistrusted, and therefore unsuccessful as a social movement objective. Gariepy (2016) explains that although the UDHR is not a legally binding document, it provides the foundation for almost all the international treatises related to human rights. However, it has been noted that the standards set were not objectively or inclusively developed, and this puts them at risk of not being fully embraced. Zurbuchen (2010) for instance reports that there is a notable absence of cultural and moral pluralism in the formulation process, so that having human rights as a kind of moral standard across the world has ended up being considered to be an imposition of western values on people who have different traditions hence possible non-acceptance.

The goal of universal individual rights as presented by the UDHR might be made difficult due to the conduct of the authorities that are supposed to implement it at national and global levels. Blumenson (2015) for instance observes that achievement of global human rights may not be possible because governments have not been truly pursuing the objective in totality, and some, especially governments of the world powers often freely use it as a disguise for their agendas. Tharoor (2000) adds that there have been many wars fought with human rights as the excuse, with the claim of universality increasingly being used as a convenient tool for political agendas that are at times questionable. Nevertheless, according to Anderson (2012), the current definition of human rights is generally supra-national, as contemporary aspirations have tended to shift from state politics to global morality. According to Donnelly (2007), significant violations are made each day in all countries, yet the human rights regime relies on sovereign states to implement them. Considering that the scope of such rights is extremely broad, only a few, in this case some war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, arbitrary execution and tortures are handled beyond the state level. There is also a challenge in enforcement. According to Hanley (2016), a violation in one country can not necessarily be followed up in another country, especially if there is no extradition or such treaty, even when it involves a human rights violation incident.

Differences in cultural context across the world’s regions and countries are likely to make human rights ideals ineffective in some areas. This argument is provided by scholars who refer to cultural relativism as a determinant of acceptance of values. Wegner (2012) explains that going by this, nothing is ever truly universal, as human rights end up being defined by local cultural perceptions. In relation to this, Blumenson ( 2015) argues that all cultures have their own ways of conceptualizing morality and justice, hence the need to be allowed to define them in the best way they feel otherwise there can never be a cross-cultural principle of justice, hence failure of the movement. According to Donnelly (2007), the movement is usually backed by global economic, cultural and political powers, unfortunately according to Tharoor (2007) creating the overall belief that human rights are simply a kind of western concept which ignores differences in economic, political and cultural realities in other areas of the world.

The focus of human rights on the individual is not practical, making it unlikely to be successful. According to Wegner (2012) many societies do not accommodate individuality, therefore human rights should not be entirely individualistic. Anderson (2012) adds that the push for human rights has tended to ignore the issue of group rights, yet communitarianism is a necessity in ensuring that every part of the world is included. Magnarella (2003) also argues that some cultures, for instance among Confucians are often against the individualism in human rights, and instead advocate for kin group and family values instead, while some Islamists oppose the idea of religious freedom and gender equality. Gariepy (2016) explains that in North Korea, responsibility and identity are collective, making the universal idea of individual rights alien. Tharoor (2000) adds that in Africa also, the community nurtures and protects the individual, and there are complex structures made up of communal obligations and entitlements rather than rights. In most of its societies, there is greater precedence of group rights above individual rights and decisions are often driven by group consensus, not individual right.

The presentation of human rights is generally subjective, therefore possibly limiting success. For individual rights to be accepted and therefore embraced fully, they have to be understood, yet the human rights agenda has an outright bias. According to Duhan (2016) for instance, the current human rights framework is ideologically biased, and therefore not entirely inclusive. This view explains that its formulation was as one dimension of capitalist, liberal ideology, making it necessary to get rid of aspects that relate entirely to capitalism and add the kind of rights often only protected within socialist frameworks. A good, universal system should not only be inclusive of socialist perspectives, but also have international kinds of structural issues incorporated into it.

Lack of inclusivity will make human rights difficult to integrate. Bloomer (2016) explains that lack of inclusiveness can have a major effect because for instance in Vedic and Confucian traditions, rights are never more important than duties. In the case of non-inclusion of values, a further good example is in the issue of women’s rights, as the movement assumes it to be universal yet it is impossible to view it from the perspective because there are wide divergences in cultural practices, so that for instance in some cultures marriage is an alliance of lineages and not just a contract entered into by two people. Tharoor (2000) explains that from a religious perspective, universal rights are also unachievable because to be universal means having to be founded on some transcendent values sanctioned by religious custodians and symbolized by God yet the UDHR does not qualify here. The seemingly irreconcilable differences in the economic and political status of nations will also always limit the extent to which human rights can be achieved, especially for developing countries. Such countries have not been able to finish tasks relating to economic development, nation-building and state structure consolidation, and for this reason authoritarianism is tolerated as it has always proved to have greater efficiency in promoting economic growth and development.

Individual rights seemingly require the achievement of universality, yet there are already competing interests that question universality of the rights. For instance, Pin (2014) indicates that major social and theoretical competitors in this regard include the Catholic Doctrine of Human Rights (CDHR), guided by the Natural Law theory. The catholic approach calls for international bodies to only intervene only when smaller nations have been unable to solve certain problems. The Modern Natural Law Theory on its part accepts the possibility of social and territorial differences relating to interpretation, application and enforcement of norms. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) provides a margin of appreciation, giving space for countries to make adjustments to provisions as long as they do not violate the human rights that are protected within the European Convention.

Donnelly (2007) argues that the universal possession and not universal implementation of human rights is one of the factors that makes it difficult to have universal human rights and therefore making it just an ideal concept. In most cases, the global human rights system depends on national implementation of human rights that are internationally recognized. Sovereign states handle the task of execution of authoritative human rights. Nevertheless, most of the human rights standards are violated by the states. Only in few and restricted exemptions does universality apply for instance in situations such as crimes against humanity, genocide, arbitrary execution, torture and war crimes. It can therefore be stated that the state level implementation of human rights is a contributory factor that makes it difficult to attain universality in the implementation of human rights.

The Argument for Universality

The idea of universality cannot however be totally dismissed. Tharoor (2000) explains that this is because from the philosophical angle, concepts of law, justice, government legitimacy and fight against oppression are present in all societies. Historically, many developing countries for instance Cuba, China, India, Panama, Chile and Lebanon for instance were very instrumental in creation of the UDHR. During the 1960’s also, newly independent states such as Nigeria and Ghana helped to end stalemates relating to East-West differences that had affected implementation of human rights covenants so far. Human rights principles have been adopted across the world, making the fact that only a few nations drafted them inconsequential. Universality does not necessarily need to imply uniformity. It is all about having philosophical and ethical systems which are not contradicting the aspirations or ideals of any human society, and which reflect the shared universal humanity.

Blumenson (2015) argues that universality does not necessarily suggest that every society must hold similar values or adopt one model. Universalism needs to respect diversity in people’s way of life and recognition that some things will be wrong irrespective of where they occur. It also does not necessarily imply that human rights will be the natural rights which would exist in the state of nature, as this would imply that rights to fair trial, voting or collective bargaining will then not qualify to be human rights. The universality of human rights only implies that they are common to everyone everywhere irrespective of the different ways in which they may be applied, because they eventually bring out moral interests that are similar.

Also, historically, human rights were frequently held as universal whereby many societies and cultures did observed human rights throughout history even until today. It can be stated that there are manifestations of universal human rights throughout history. This has resulted to the development of a body of literature referred to as the non- western perceptions of human rights. For instance in many contemporary Arab literature, on the topic of human rights there are a number of declarations and conventions that have embraced key standards of universal human rights. Additionally, African societies observed and practiced human rights. The Hindu people also ensured that they observed key attributes of human rights that were fundamental to all people. Practically, today many countries in the world have accepted the guidelines of the Universal declaration of human rights (Donnelly, 2007). It can therefore be stated that significant observance of human rights by societies promotes the concept of universalism.


From the discussion, universal individual human rights do not exist yet. Its association with lack of cultural and moral pluralism implies that it will always face the challenge of lack of acceptance and ownership. In order for human rights to be entirely universal and therefore realistic, they have to be fully compatible with all cultures across the globe. This is however seemingly impossible, considering that different parts of the world are in different stages of development, and cultures remain highly diverse even within national settings alone. As long as the system is still not perfect, achievement of universal human rights is likely to remain an unrealistic ideal, and if it is attained, the question of what constitutes human rights will create differences on whether it has been achieved or not. It is therefore not possible to achieve individual rights for all human beings. Only the documents that outline the rights can be universal and fully embraced but their goals are likely to always remain impossible to attain. Nevertheless, even though the universal individual human rights are not really the remedy for global problems, they seem to be useful in guiding struggles for human dignity and social justice at all levels, and the fact that these rights are relatively universal can help to ensure that the international society is as humane and just as possible.


The UDHR provides a guideline for what the global society needs to attain so as to ensure individual human rights for all. As a goal, this has not yet been achieved and is unlikely to be attained. This is mainly because while it requires a truly universal character, it does not have the ability of doing so. The human rights movement faces challenges relating to lack of pluralism, limitation by local and international political forces, lack of inclusivity, excessive focus on individual rather than group rights, ideological and other biases. It may be argued that it is not a venture of western countries as suggested because its formulation involved developing countries and many of them signed the treaty. However, the challenges make it unlikely to achieve a truly universal acceptance, as it will continue to be viewed as a foreign ideal being imposed on others, therefore limiting its ability to attain individual rights for each person as envisioned.


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