60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

6 12 2007

On monday the UN 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 starts.

I’ve been thinking about human rights for a time. Can human rights be universal? Can a single set of rights be valid in different cultures?

On one hand my social-liberal side wants to say “of course”, there are some rights which are universal and must be accepted by everyone everywhere. On the other hand I also feel that the thought of a universal rule about human conduct is absurd: values and judgments change over time and space.

This conflict between local and universal is often a burning problem in discussions on Islamic head coverings and secular western culture. I heard an interview on Swedish radio with an Egyptian feminist scholar who argued that head coverings were a matter of fashion, deep belief and choice — not something that could be defined by secular law. The Burka or Niqab really poses a crucial question in relation to human rights. Which rules are to be obeyed? The religious customs, protected by article 2, or secular Egyptian laws preventing the use of head coverings.

The problem is that the rules set forth in the universal declaration are contradictory: the freedom of religion sometimes stands in opposition to, for example, equality before the law. This illuminates a basic problem of stating that the declaration is universal — it is written from the point of view of values from a certain time and place.

But what is the alternative? Often I believe some kind of situated pragmatism is called for, where local conditions are weighed against the universal. But this also denies the power of creating a Universal law valid for everyone.

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