„Concepts of Human Rights are not unique to the West“ – Interview with Ned Richardson-Little

I recently read a book by Hans Joas dealing with the question whether the idea of Human Rights is a Western phenomenon or not. Joas is skeptical. Would you agree?

There is a lot to unpack with this question, but the short answer is, yes I too am skeptical.

Ned Richardson-Little (photo: private)

Ned Richardson-Little (photo: private)

The claim that human rights are a product of the Western tradition is problematic as this is more often a political assertion than a reasoned historical account. From political and moral traditions in the West we can trace a historical narrative of evolving norms of equality amongst citizens and before the law as well as participatory democracy. But, these concepts are not unique to the West, nor have they been the rule in Western cultures, rather the exception.

While Western intellectuals and institutions have helped to shape modern human rights politics, they have not been alone in this endeavor. The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) sought to include concepts and ideas from a variety of cultural traditions in order that it be a truly universal document. When the UN sought to create legally binding Covenants based on the UDHR in the 1960s, the Afro-Asian nations were crucial in demanding the inclusion of the right to self-determination and declaring imperialism itself to be a violation of human rights. Many Western states, if by no means all, were hostile to the equality granted economic, social, and cultural rights by international human rights treaties.

How did socialist states react to the declaration of Human Rights in 1948?

The entirety of the socialist bloc abstained from the vote on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, ostensibly as a protest against its failure to condemn colonialism and include the right to self-determination. At this time, the vote was not seen as the momentous occasion that it is today – the Canadian government was prepared to join in abstaining on the grounds that the UDHR violated principles of federalism and parliamentary supremacy, but they were dissuaded at the last minute from doing so.

The socialist bloc rapidly discovered, however, that human rights were a useful propaganda tool against the West. The Soviet Union and the Eastern European satellites joined with Third World delegations in using human rights to attack Western colonialism abroad and racial persecution at home. By the 1960s, when the UN Human Rights Covenants of 1966 were finalized, the socialist bloc was well ahead of many Western nations in signing on to the treaties.

When state socialism once provided a counter-narrative to Western conceptions of human rights – what are the counter-narratives today?

Today the dominant conception of human rights is closely linked to individualism, liberal democracy and market capitalism, but there remain competing visions. Within the West and elsewhere there are socialist thinkers who argue that a renewed focus on economic and social rights is needed to prevent exploitation and oppression from inequality and poverty. There are collectivist ideas of human rights advanced by indigenous groups that seek to assert their rights to self-determination and cultural survival. African intellectuals have, since the 1980s, promoted a discourse of human rights grounded in the preservation of traditional cultural values and practices as opposed to the adoption of Western political institutions. Echoing the Third World discourses of the 1960s, modern day China asserts that its form of state-directed market economics combined with authoritarian political structures is the key to fulfilling the rights of its people. The Iranian Islamic Human Rights Commission actively criticizes Western human rights practices and promotes its own interpretation grounded in religious principles. Even North Korea claims to practice a true form of human rights through the principles of Juche in contrast to the imperialist hypocrisy of the West. The state-socialist alternative to “Western” human rights is gone, but competition on the international stage remains.

Dr. Ned Richardson-Little is currently an Associate Research Fellow working on “1989 after 1989: The Fall of State-Socialism in a Global Perspective,” a Leverhulme Trust supported project led by Professor James Mark. His research projects focus on the politics of human rights in the Eastern Bloc and the history of oil in East Germany.
You can follow Ned on twitter at @HistoryNed.


Gesche Schifferdecker

Gesche Schifferdecker works as a press officer with a focus on online communication at the Max Weber Stiftung. She is editor of various scientific Blogs (e.g. trafo.hypotheses.org and wwc.hypotheses.org) and organizes the "WeberWorldCafé".

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