Are human rights universal?
Updated: May 14, 2021
A few weeks ago, I learned that one third of my fellow French citizens think that other systems than democracy might be just as good. With the internal issues the United States are facing and the regression of liberties in Hong Kong, freedom in the world seems at risk. People are wondering if democracy and individual liberties are universal values, or just some Western-specific historical accident.
See also: French version / version française 🇫🇷
I don’t claim to be a philosopher or historian, but I wanted to give my humble opinion on this subject which I think is very important.
A history of Western arrogance
Let’s first recognize that Western countries have a history of extreme and unjustified arrogance. We have been killing and enslaving people because we were convinced that our race, culture and religion were superior.
In the era of crusades there was no doubt for us that “we” were better than “they”. We were convinced that our religion was the only right one and our divine mission was to convert pagans. The lack of rationality, the ignorance of other cultures and the lack of general education did not give us the ability to distinguish true universal values from purely specific customs.
Also, western countries were mostly autocracies with little individual freedom, so there weren't really any great values to spread anyway. Of course, a few counter-examples can be mentioned, like the experience of Athenian democracy in Ancient Greece, but they were exceptions in a world of autocracies.
The Age of Enlightenment
However, during the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, intellectuals started questioning authority and laid down the foundations of human rights. A central idea was that life, liberty and property are natural rights of the individual which shall be respected and protected by the government. This was truly revolutionary at the time, because despots could then imprison or expropriate individuals at will. After more or less violent revolutions, fundamental rights became incorporated in constitutions or similar documents, both in Western Europe and the United States.
Another key idea was to make justice accountable and transparent. Courts shall only apply laws that individuals can know about in advance, and shall make their decisions in public. The final revolutionary idea is of course that of democracy. The laws themselves shall be decided by representatives elected by the people.
To make the rest of this article simpler, we will call these ideas fundamental rights from now on.
Between light and darkness
Even after Enlightenment, Western civilizations still had a lot of major defects. For instance, their democracy was partial because only men could vote. Another critical failure was the application of human rights only to white people. A large part of the United States and Europe continued to practice slavery until the 19th century. Even after slavery was over, it took another century before people of all races were granted equal rights before the law.
Apart from these defects, another dark aspect is that these rights were not continuously respected in the 20th century. The rise of fascist ideas contested these rights. Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy or Vichy France were regimes in which democracy and human rights had completely disappeared.
After the end of World War II was over, these values were again threatened by a new ideology: communism. The West promoted its own values including fundamental rights, which also included economic freedom, like the freedom to create and own companies which is the foundation of capitalism. This last part was accused by socialists as the root cause of poverty and inequality, which they sought to replace by a state-managed economy in the interest of the working class. But in reality, citizens of the East enjoyed neither economic freedom nor any other fundamental right.
As I mentioned before in my article Capitalism is still the best system, millions of people from East Germany crossed the border to reach the West, before their government built a militarized border to kill anyone who tried to escape. People wanted to reach the West for the material well-being offered by capitalism, but also for the freedoms that could be enjoyed in the West but were denied in the East.
More than Western values
In the West, we have been far too arrogant in the past, and it’s important to remember that to avoid making the same mistakes again. However, we should not fall to the other extreme, which is to think that everything is a just matter of culture and that fundamental rights are just one of several equally good systems of values.
A first counter-argument to this idea is that these values are not only respected in Western civilizations. Non-Western countries can even beat Western countries at implementing them. For instance, according to the Democracy Index created by The Economist, Japan and South Korea are actually more democratic than the United States. Similarly, events in Hong Kong show that non-Western people are as ready to fight for fundamental rights as Western people.
A universal discovery
I believe that fundamental rights are actually a discovery made by mankind of a universal truth. A way to morally justify these rights could be to use “Kantian ethics”, which is the logic that “you would like to have these rights for yourself, so you should want everyone to be able to enjoy them”. Or we could adopt a utilitarian point of view, which is to say that enjoying fundamental rights is essential to the happiness of the people. In either way, knowing that you enjoy these rights brings you peace of mind. You don’t have to fear being killed, imprisoned or expropriated just because it is the will of powerful people.
As a French citizen, I have the privilege of living in one of the few places on Earth that guarantees a rather good level of individual freedom. I know it is thanks to people fighting for these freedoms that I can today write such an article without fear for my life and liberty.
What about democracy? I tend to see it as a means to an end. It is the best way to guarantee that people continue to enjoy individual liberties. As experience shows, autocrats often have no respect for fundamental freedoms and get rid of them as they fear they could be used to question their power.
Mankind has discovered that fundamental rights are a key aspect of civilization and that democracy is the political system most efficient at maintaining them. We have discovered that people shall have the same rights whatever their race or gender. But there is still room for progress. We are still improving our set of values, by discovering for instance that LGBT people shall be treated equally or that animals are entitled to some respect for their well-being.
The enemies of freedom
Fundamental rights are a fragile treasure and they can easily be jeopardized if we’re not careful. A first risk comes from a violent takeover by armed forces. An obvious threat for a democratic country is to be invaded by a non-democratic one. Another risk is for an internal faction to seize control in the form of a coup d’état. Democracies should not assume that they will always be almighty because they have been on the victorious side of previous wars, thanks in large part to the strong power of the United States.
But another risk comes from ourselves, the people living in democracies. We could let people in power damage the precious institutions that democracy needs or use corruption to bias the democratic process. A similar risk would be to elect people who are against democracy because we have stopped believing in its importance. The obvious historical example is Hitler who came to power by being democratically elected.
A final and more subtle risk is that we vote to enact laws that damage fundamental rights, even though our political system remains a true democracy. This can happen if a majority of people vote to deprive a minority of its rights. Suppose for instance that we vote for criminalizing homosexuality, like it was the case in the past. The decision would be democratic but would nevertheless be a regression for fundamental rights. This means that democracy itself is not sufficient, we also need the people to believe in individual freedom and to be educated enough to make rational decisions.
Will the world continue its long-term trend towards more human rights and democracy? Or will it fall back into darkness? It depends on us.