Are human rights a Western prejudice?
INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS - BUSO204 - 2009 Semester One, Brisbane
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. ”
—Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).Throughout the world we can count a myriad of cultures. Each culture has its own history, its own beliefs, and its own traditions. Within one culture, the traditions appear as common and usual. However, if you take an external point of view, those same traditions can be seen as weird and even cruel toward human beings. Most of Western countries judge some eastern practices as decadent for thehuman dignity -those same practices that are normal for these Eastern countries. But what is normality? We can formulate the statement that it is a question of relativity. This is what brings us to the following question: Are human rights a Western prejudice? Have western countries got the right or the legitimacy to determine if a practice is unlawful?
Human rights refer to the "basic rights andfreedoms to which all humans are entitled."(Houghton Miffin Company, 2006)
First of all, to understand the concept of human rights it is necessary to redraw them history.
The notion of human rights as we understand it today is relatively recent. However, we can find roots of the concept in various cultures’ old traditions and documents. The World War II and its atrocity were necessary to awakethe Humanity and to make human rights an international concept .
In all the societies, we can find examples of a codification of laws that contain references to individual rights, whether in oral or written tradition. These references may be considered to be human rights.
The earliest sign of human rights has been found on the tablet of Hammurabi created by the Sumerian king Hammurabi about4000 years ago. This code, that can be similar to a legal system, protected people from arbitrary persecution and punishment. Nevertheless, this tablet appears today as barbaric.
The concept of human rights took a larger range during the ancient Greece and begun to cover more subjects than the simple prevention of arbitrary persecution. The Greek tradition was led by the concept of natural rights.These rights result from the laws of the gods that maintain the universe in order and control nature. This idea of natural rights was taken back in ancient Rome and has even been extended: every person has natural rights, no matter if she is a Roman citizen or not. Despite this principle, the differences between human rights, as we see them today, and the natural rights, as they were conceived inthe past, remain obvious. Some traditions and practices that were allowed by the natural rights in the past may appear today to be a trespass of human rights. For instance, the slavery was prohibited in the majority of the British Empire in 1833 by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833  because the slavery is considered nowadays as going counter the ideas of freedom and equality, whereas during theancient Rome, the concept of slaves and slavery was totally natural. Therefore, human rights was at the beginning a concept relative to each culture- each right isn’t applying necessarily to another culture.
Caused by the decline in power of the church, the individual has seen, during the middle Ages and the Renaissance, an increase in his rights to the detriment of the feudal and monarchistsocieties.
Later, with Thomas Hobbes, appeared the concept of positive law. According to him, natural rights didn’t suit the society’s needs because of them absolutism. The idea of natural rights was too vague and abstract and could be interpreted in too many different ways and therefore lead to a misunderstanding. The idea of positive law was more malleable and could fit more the real society’s...