Are Human Rights Western Centric?


Are human rights western centric? I wonder if  nation states that claim a relativist stance on human rights that takes into account specific cultural practices in its formulation of rights are blind sighted by the need to adhere to existing religious, cultural and traditional norms for the sake of maintaining the kind of organic solidarity and societal cohesion that the French sociologist Durkheim discusses in his writings. One questions whether societies really adhere to the ‘evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society’.  (per Kennedy J in Roper v Simmons 2005).

On the other hand, I am inclined to support Connor Foley’s argument that the danger of NGOs and other organisations having their independence and impartiality compromised by allowing themselves to be co-opted into strategies that  impose western values on developing nations is very real.

Eva Brems notes that  the Singapore School of human rights and the Asian critique of human rights hold the view that what is presented as universal human rights is in fact a western interpretation. Brems observes that their main claim is one of respect for diversity.

I have been contemplating the question of how human rights should be balanced with state sovereignty. Kathryn Sikkink presents us with a theory of norms in international relations that attempts to explain the impact that international human rights norms have in challenging the ‘central logic of a system of sovereign states.’

It never fails to shock me whenever i read of state leaders refusing to acknowledge or even justifying the brutal treatment of political dissidents, minority groups and  other civilians in countries like Sudan , Myanmar, China and even Australia, in relation to the way its government policies allow for  the incarceration of refugees who arrive at their shores by boat by detaining them on islands like Nauru.

Incidentally, an article in the Guardian dated 10th August, 2016 describes the scale of assaults, sexual assaults and self-harms suffered especially by children and women in Australia’s offshore detention centres.

Are there no limits to the kinds of indignities and atrocities that sovereign states,(recognised by the Charter of the United Nations as a member on the basis of Sovereign equality) can perpetrate against individuals.

Even though some of us may agree with Sikkink when she argues that norms involving bodily integrity and prevention of bodily harm for vulnerable groups are ‘particularly effective transnationally and cross culturally’ since they ‘resonate with basic ideas of human dignity common to most cultures’, it is not always empirically supported.

Would it be right to say that a theory of norms in international relations presents us with a constructivist view of how human rights norms, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration, Genocide convention and other treaties, influence the policies of government and perhaps the way nations states treat individuals?

I would support Sikkink’s argument that many of the international human rights norms in the UDHR have progressed through the period of norm emergence and cascadence by virtue of the number of states ratifying human rights treaties and introducing them in their foreign policies.

For instance, it is arguable that domestic national policies in Singapore in relation to the issue of human trafficking and the protection of vulnerable groups of women and children were the subject of much criticism by human rights and NGOs for many years. It was only in 2015 that the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act 2014 Act was introduced to deal with the exploitation of women and children for sexual purposes.

I would support Sikkink’s view that ‘degree to which we are aware of human rights  violations and increasingly critical of the adequate response of governments to these these violations is in part an indicator of the influence of human rights on expectations on foreign policy.’

This approach encapsulates the dynamic interaction that may be struck between the protection of human rights and the preservation of state sovereignty.  Could the legitimacy of states as territorially based entities  which are independent in terms of their constitutional arrangements ( per Alan James) be measured not just by their economic and military prowess but by their policies on the protection of the rights of minorities, among other rights?

The geopolitical realities of east Asia seems to suggest otherwise with greater importance given by political and regional blocs like ASEAN to an Asia wide FTA rather than to the condemnation of the human rights abuse by its member state , Myanmar, against a minority ethnic group, the Rohingyas. Myanmar remains a member of Asean and the United Nations.