The UCL Centre for Access to Justice
  • Subscribe

  • ‘Human Rights as a Western Construct: India as an Example’ written by Ila Tyagi

    By Rose Ireland, on 10 April 2017

    In this blog post, LLM student Ila Tyagi argues against ‘universal human rights’ as they are typically understood, drawing from cultural relativist arguments and using India as an example.

    In many developing countries, human rights are often considered to be western concepts imposed on them by foreign governments and treaties. The problem lies in the narrow and egocentric definition of human rights[1]. There are many arguments against the universality of human rights. This essay aims to explain some of the arguments against human rights and presents a solution to universalise human rights.

    Critics of human rights argue that the human rights system mirrors the ideas of good governance that are grounded in the “common historical experiences” of the western countries[2]. Such a system could only successfully prevail in countries with abundant wealth, resources and good social order. [3] While looking at the history of human rights, it becomes clear that the precursors to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Rights of Man. This historical fact helps to crystallise the critics’ view human rights are indeed a western concept. However, this simplified view overlooks the fact that a majority of the countries involved in the formation of UDHR were non-western countries like India and China[4].

    There is also a cultural argument against human rights, which suggests that it is impossible to adopt universal human rights in a world where there is plurality of cultures[5]. They further argue that western culture is centered on the rights of the individual whereas most African and Asian cultures value the community[6] and believe in collective rights[7]. For example in the Indian culture, rights are subordinated in importance to duty[8]. Moreover, many African societies believe in enforcing collective rights over individual rights[9]. It is difficult to impose the concepts of women’s rights on societies like India where society believes that a woman’s behavior is crucial to the preservation of its honour[10]. Therefore, there is clash of civilisations between the western developed world and the non-western developing world. The latter perceives the imposition of international human rights treaties as an act of cultural imperialism because the theory and practice of human rights exhibits an act of hubris similar to the civilisational missions the western countries undertook in the past[11].  It is viewed as an attempt to impose alien western cultural values on them[12] and as a facade to intervene in their internal political affairs[13].

    There is also an argument claiming human rights are a barrier to rapid economic development. According to a study compiled by researchers at the Centre for Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness in India, most Indian youths demonstrated “authoritarian leanings” and were skeptical about the advantages of democracy[14]. This is largely because some Indian youth believe that relinquishing human rights is a small sacrifice for bigger results like economic development [15]. These authoritarian inclinations can also be attributed to rampant corruption[16] in the government organisations and indecisive coalition governments. Furthermore, the Indian politicians often engage in divisive politics based on caste and religion in order to amass votes from the minorities and people from their communities. This practice has led to people voting their caste rather than casting their vote.  The youth perceive the presence of too many regional and communal interests in the parliament as a hindrance to the achievement of a supreme national goal i.e. economic development. Many Indians believe that a benign dictator or a strong central government is the only means of achieving India’s ambitions. This desire for a stronger central government is what fuelled the rise of Bhartiya Janta Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power. It is common amongst Indians to compare India’s achievements with those of China in the fields of infrastructure building, economic growth and even Olympic medals (of which China has plenty and India just a handful).

    In order to illustrate my point, let us compare the development of an infrastructure project in a democratic developing country like India and a developing country based on authoritarian capitalism. In the authoritarian country, building an airport would probably take a few months because the government would not be hassled by issues of compensation, eviction and protestors. However, in a democracy like India where there is freedom of association, free press and the freedom to protest; the government would have to seek people’s permission in order to evict them. Many people would refuse to evict their houses and rightfully so if adequate compensation is not paid to them. Various interest groups would protest for the rights of the vulnerable people who are affected by the project. The free media would highlight the negative environmental impacts of building an airport. Some interests groups may even commence public interest litigation against the government and the corporate entities involved in the project. Thus, it might take years to complete the project. This would mean the democratic country might develop at the slow pace of an elephant as opposed to the swiftness of the authoritarian dragon.

    In addition, the governments of many developing countries argue that the right to development is more important than the right to political liberties[17]. Some countries with higher crime rates might argue that the need for right to security justifies the harsh enforcement measures used to protect this right[18]. Many countries justify the use of torture techniques used in prison interviews as necessary to solve the case[19]. The fact that most developing countries do not have well guarded prisons is also used to support using harsh interrogation methods and prison sentences[20]. Under the human rights laws, the developing countries are required to incorporate major institutional and behavioral changes while the western countries can maintain their status quo. The developing countries are now facing challenges that the West had encountered in a distant past[21] when its own human rights credentials were stained by practices like slavery, racial segregation and anti-Semitism[22].

    In conclusion, a distinction must be drawn between the universality of human rights and the uniformity of human rights[23].  In order to promote a universal approach to human rights the West needs to recognise the failures of current human rights system in promoting human rights in the developing world and rectify its policy accordingly[24]. Perhaps a policy of opting in and opting out of certain provisions may serve the interests of those societies that do not agree with all the provisions in various human rights declarations[25]. However, coercive practices like female circumcision and subjugation of women in various cultures should be condemned because no rights exist when one is coerced to adopt certain cultural beliefs or practices[26]. The new model for development should be inclusive and not alienate vulnerable groups of people. We should strive to assert human rights in accordance with each country’s histories and traditions rather than as a rigid foreign concept[27]. The one-size fits all approach should be abandoned in favour of a flexible approach to suit the needs of our diverse world.

    [1] Stephen Kinzer, ‘End Human Rights Imperialism Now’ The Guardian (London 31 December 2010) <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/dec/31/human-rights-imperialism-james-hoge >accessed 26 February 2017

    [2] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

    [3] Ibid.

    [4] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

    [5] Ibid.

    [6]Ibid.

    [7] Clancy Wright, ‘ Western Human Rights in Diverse World: Cultural Imperialism or Relativism?’ (E-International Relations Student, 25 April 2014) < http://www.e-ir.info/2014/04/25/western-human-rights-in-a-diverse-world-cultural-suppression-or-relativism/> accessed 25 February 2017

    [8] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

    [9]Clancy Wright, ‘ Western Human Rights in Diverse World: Cultural Imperialism or Relativism?’ (E-International Relations Student, 25 April 2014) < http://www.e-ir.info/2014/04/25/western-human-rights-in-a-diverse-world-cultural-suppression-or-relativism/> accessed 25 February 2017

    [10] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

    [11] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

    [12] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

    [13] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

    [14] Kanishk Tharoor, ‘Why Many Indians and Americans have Authoritarian Leanings?’ Hindustan Times (New Delhi 30 December 2016)<http://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/why-many-young-indians-and-americans-have-authoritarian-leanings/story-zSizwsoDPJKvOm5vSKmnUJ.html > accessed on 26 February 2016

    [15] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

     

    [16] Kanishk Tharoor, ‘Why Many Indians and Americans have Authoritarian Leanings?’ Hindustan Times (New Delhi 30 December 2016)<http://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/why-many-young-indians-and-americans-have-authoritarian-leanings/story-zSizwsoDPJKvOm5vSKmnUJ.html > accessed on 26 February 2016

    [17] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

    [18] Ibid.

    [19] Ibid.

    [20] Ibid.

    [21] Ibid.

    [22] Shashi Tharoor, ‘Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

    [23] Ibid.

    [24] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

    [25] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

    [26] Ibid.

    [27] Ibid.