Courtesy Reuters

The Attack on Human Rights


Since 1945, human rights language has become a source of power and authority. Inevitably, power invites challenge. Human rights doctrine is now so powerful, but also so unthinkingly imperialist in its claim to universality, that it has exposed itself to serious intellectual attack. These challenges have raised important questions about whether human rights norms deserve the authority they have acquired: whether their claims to universality are justified, or whether they are just another cunning exercise in Western moral imperialism.

The cultural challenge to the universality of human rights arises from three distinct sources -- from resurgent Islam, from within the West itself, and from East Asia. Each of these challenges is independent of the others, but taken together, they have raised substantial questions about the cross-cultural validity -- and hence the legitimacy -- of human rights norms.

The challenge from Islam has been there from the beginning. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being drafted in 1947, the Saudi Arabian delegation raised particular objection to Article 16, relating to free marriage choice, and Article 18, relating to freedom of religion. On the question of marriage, the Saudi delegate to the committee examining the draft of the declaration made an argument that has resonated ever since in Islamic encounters with Western human rights, saying that

the authors of the draft declaration had, for the most part, taken into consideration only the standards recognized by Western civilization and had ignored more ancient civilizations which were past the experimental stage, and the institutions of which, for example, marriage, had proved their wisdom through the centuries. It was not for the Committee to proclaim the superiority of one civilization over all others or to establish uniform standards for all the countries of the world.

This was a defense of both the Islamic faith and patriarchal authority. The Saudi delegate in effect argued that the exchange and control of women is the very raison d'tre of traditional cultures, and that the restriction of

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