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Everybody's Misery Matters

The declaration itself incorporated a whole series of social and economic rights -- such as the right to food, housing, medical care, and employment -- not traditionally associated with the Western conception of rights.
The American poet Robert Frost once said that poems begin with a lump in the throat. Human rights do, too, and they have for almost 4,000 years, back at least to 1740 B.C. when King Hammurabi codified his laws against unfair trials, torture, and slavery. At the end of the day, the reason any of us cares about human rights is because we feel sick at heart at the sight of misery.

But whose misery? Hammurabi's strictures against torture and slavery applied only to his own people, the Babylonians. His archenemies, the Assyrians, fell outside the scope of his code's protection. Assyrians could be tortured and enslaved without compunction.

Similarly, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the U. S. Bill of Rights guaranteed rights only for the French and the Americans. Beyond inspiration, they had little value for the Thai or the Congolese. Indeed, it took a very long time for human beings to feel sick at heart at the sight of everybody's misery -- not just at the misery of their own clan or tribe or nation, the misery of the nobles or the ruling class or the wealthy.

Are Human Rights Universal?

Indeed, it was not until 1948 -- 3,688 years after Hammurabi -- that the people of the world managed to agree that everybody's misery matters. One reason the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted on December 10, 1948, is such a revolutionary document is exactly because it is universal, and thereby takes precedence over every political ideology and every parochial claim.

But are human rights universal, or are they merely an excuse to impose Western values on the rest of the world? Some Asian leaders have argued that Asian culture puts greater emphasis upon the needs of the community than the rights of the individual and that hence society's needs come before individual rights. Some Muslims contend that Shari'a law ought to govern social and political relations in Muslim societies, even when it is at odds with universal human rights.

There is no question that many of the rights in the Universal Declaration are products of the Western Enlightenment, but the declaration was hardly foisted upon the rest of the world by the West. The Human Rights Commission that produced it in 1948 included delegates from Egypt, India, Iran, and Lebanon, among others. The declaration itself incorporated a whole series of social and economic rights such as the right to food, housing, medical care, and employment not traditionally associated with the Western conception of rights. And of the 48 countries that adopted the UDHR without a dissenting vote, nine stood in the Islamic tradition, three in the Buddhist, and one in the Hindu.

Since 1948 dozens of states, from every religious and cultural tradition, have incorporated the principles of the UDHR into their national constitutions.

Voice To The Voiceless

Moreover, is it really true that the values of the UDHR are exclusively Western?

The renowned economist Amartya Sen, who was born in India, has sharply disputed that notion, citing, for example, the commitment of the Indian emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C. to tolerance of diverse religious sects, limitations on slaughter in war, and "non-injury, restraint, impartiality, and mild behavior" as the marks of good government.

But even if universal human rights standards are at odds with a particular cultural or religious tradition, that does not make them invalid. For human rights are designed to give voice to the voiceless and to set boundaries beyond which powerful may not go in their treatment of the less powerful.

Those who object to the Western bias of universal human rights are almost always those who are wielding the greatest power in their societies and rarely those on the receiving end of it. I have never heard a Chinese political prisoner, for example, argue that because Asian values champion the right to development over the right to be free of torture, Chinese prison guards are welcome to switch on the electro-shock weapons. But isn't that prisoner just as Asian as that guard? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has fought for years for democracy in Burma (Myanmar), ardently disputes the notion that Asian cultural values somehow invalidate the promise of democracy and human rights. "Unless they wish to call the people of Burma 'un-Asian,'" she says, according to "The New York Times," "they cannot call our struggle 'un-Asian.'"

What do we who support the universality of human rights say, then, to those who charge that those rights reflect Western bias? We say that human rights are guides to civilized behavior that have been recognized by people from around the world and incorporated into the laws and policies of vast numbers of nations. While great respect must be paid to individual traditions, universal human rights ultimately trump all more narrow interests, for they are the way by which the weak as well as the strong say, 'This is what it means to be humane. This is what it means to be truly human.' Happy 60th birthday, Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Happy birthday to you.

William F. Schulz, a senior fellow in human rights policy at the Center for American Progress, served as executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994-2006. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL