Universal Human Rights and the Challenges of Inclusion

A ‘universal declaration’ cannot be developed by a tiny minority of well-meaning experts on behalf of extremely diverse, disenfranchised and divided global community: a ‘universal’ framework of human rights is self-contradictory and self-defeating.

Many significant changes have taken place in the global village since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations 70 years ago. The very idea of a ‘universal’ human rights framework presupposes the existence of a homogenous global community and homogenous social ideals; existence of a standard mechanisms and set of tools for accessing these rights; and existence of an ideal state that could guarantee protection of civil space from its own excesses.

Fragmented social, economic and political agendas

We live in a world characterized by conflicts, chaos and deeply entrenched differences between social, economic and political agendas of key players of global governance regime. This fragmentation becomes obvious if we look at the prevalence of conflict resolution as a permanent program of numerous UN agencies. The conflict between the perception of a ‘universal’ declaration and a fragmented social reality may point to the need for weaving a universally shared dream, but does not provide us ground to construct a universal framework.

In simple words, a ‘universal declaration’ cannot be developed by a tiny minority of well-meaning experts on behalf of extremely diverse, disenfranchised and divided global community. The fundamental right of a free human being is the right to be. The act of taking away this right from the people ‘deprived’ of rights by the representatives who want to ‘uphold’ those rights on their behalf is a contradiction in terms.

The very act of ‘representation’ in the name of realization of social imagination lays the foundation between the subject and object of the struggle for human rights. The subject in this case are the enlightened representatives and object is the marginalized humanity. This division between the subject and object furnishes the foundation of every authoritarian regime.

Therefore, the endeavor to have a ‘universal’ framework of human rights is self-contradictory and self-defeating. In the absence of a ‘universal community’, universal norms of governance and the voluntary restriction by States of their own transgression of the human rights framework happens to be a framework for seeking socially situated rights without social agency.

What does upholding this framework mean?

The UN itself has pondered over the question of making a transition from the United Nations to the United People. A report by a panel of eminent persons tasked by former Secretary General Kofi Annan on the emerging role of civil society in the contemporary world very elegantly summed the answer by saying that the UN needs to make a transition from ‘representative democracy to participatory democracy’[1].

While the UN has been developing global frameworks on human development, social justice, gender equality, self-determination and norms of governance, it has realized the critical significance of local action under Local Agenda 21 and recognized the world public opinion as “the second super power” in the world. It is time we revisit some of the basic assumptions and implications of the universal human rights framework and move away from representative to participatory frameworks.

We need to ask whether the Universal Declaration for Human Rights calls for people and States across the globe to conform to certain rights defined for them by champions of universal human rights, or if it was designed to uphold their right to be different.

Does upholding this framework of rights means letting people be what they aspire to be, or conform to the definition of rights articulated on their behalf by professionally competent outsiders? If freedom ‘to be’ is the basic human freedom, why does the rights framework emphasize ‘universality’ rather than diversity? Doesn’t this kind of universality echo singularity of truth, hall mark of totalitarian regimes that this framework aims to dislodge? Can we conceptualize a universal system of governance and a universal socio-economic system unless we believe that we have reached the ‘end of history’ – end of growth, end of dynamic tensions, and end the creative pulsation of human community?

We need to find out how to engage the local to transform the global

We are living in a world where societal forms, ranging from hunter-gatherers and nomadic communities coexist with highly technological cyber communities. The structures, norms, challenges, aspirations and values of these societies and social groups and of the individuals within them are very diverse. The matrix of citizens-community-state relations is not only very diverse from one region to another, but is also continuously changing.

In this conundrum, the first challenge faced by a Universal Human Rights framework is to indigenize or validate itself with the citizens whose rights it aims to uphold. The second challenge is to place local agency and citizens themselves at the centre of the Human Rights framework instead of letting this space be occupied by State or inter-state agencies like the United Nations.

Under the existing framework, no mechanisms exist for the downward accountability of a State under its obligations to comply with the human rights of its citizens. The realization of the vision of Universal Human Rights depends on local agency. It has to build on the wisdom of those who have been wronged, and should unleash their creative social energy for self-realization. We need to find out how to engage the local to transform the global.

The cardinal principle for replacing the ‘tyranny’ of professional with the participation of the people has been beautifully summarized by Ernest Sirolli in one sentence, “if you want to help, shut up and listen”[2].


About the author

Fayyaz BaqirFayyaz Baqir is a former O’Brien Fellow in Residence at McGill's Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. He is a development practitioner. He researches and teaches on the themes relating to inclusiveness, aimed at crossing the divides based on class, gender, faith, ethnicity and economic opportunities. At present, he is a visiting professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa.


[1] UN Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations–Civil Society Relations entitled “We the peoples: civil society, the United Nations and Global Governance”. New York, June 2004
[2] TEDxEQChCh Talk by Ernesto Sirolli September 5, 2012 Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!