The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaims that the rights discussed in the document are 'a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.' This document, along with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), are meant to be global agreements that span all cultures and traditions. These documents however do not live up to their intent. In fact, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights prove this unrealized and unrealistic expectation of the earlier 'universal' and 'international' treaties. Theoretically perhaps, there does exist a set of universal human rights, but in this diverse world any set of human rights that is to be recognized internationally must be more of a universally accepted set of human rights. This 'Declaration of Universally Accepted Human Rights' would be a document focused on overlapping consensus of many cultures. In order to accomplish this, first, an all inclusive document must be drawn up that deals with those rights that fall under an overlapping consensus of the many different cultures of the world.
Specifically, more input from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures must be included in this consensus. Second, the legacy of imperialism and slavery must be acknowledged and addressed. Many African and island cultures have suffered and continue to suffer because of these practices. The novels Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, and A Small Place, by Jamaica Kincaid, deal with many of these issues. The purpose of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was to establish a standard of human rights that is universal.
Unfortunately, shortly after the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948 the United States found itself politically and ideologically at odds with the Soviet Union and China, the latter falling to the Communists in 1949 (Donnelly 7). As a result, human rights issues became just another political outlet for the world superpowers to attack each other (Donnelly 7). Much work for the advancement of human rights was put on the back burner because of cold war politics. The ICESCR and ICCPR were put off for over a decade and split into two separate entities as a result of ideological conflicts between the US and USSR (Donnelly 8). This weakened their effectiveness as 'universal' treaties. The political arm wrestling between the US and Soviet Union also shows why building an overlapping consensus was so difficult during the cold war.
Additionally, many African and Asian countries were under Western colonial rule during the initial drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Donnelly 8). This left many voices unheard. As a result, documents such as the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and the Banjul Charter have been drafted and signed by Islamic and African nations, respectively. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam was signed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference on August 5 th, 1990. In the preamble it states a wish to 'protect man from exploitation and persecution, and to affirm his freedom and right to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic Shari " ah.' Article One of the Cairo Declaration states that 'All human beings form one family whose members are united by submission to God and descent from Adam.' These religious references to the Shari " ah, God, and Adam are all aspects of the Islamic viewpoint that are obviously not in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because in the UDHR's attempts at universality it can not embrace one religion openly. Some articles in the Cairo Declaration could be interpreted at odds with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Article 6 a of the Cairo Declaration specifies that women are equal to men 'in human dignity' and have 'rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform.' Article 6 b declares the husband as the caretaker of the family. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes no mention of gender roles for the family. Article 16 a of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights addresses the right to marriage without discrimination 'due to race, nationality or religion' and equal rights to marriage, during marriage, and after marriage. Article 16 b states that marriage shall be entered with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. The corresponding article in the Cairo Declaration, article 5, neglects to mention religion as an unacceptable reason to restrict marriage, equal rights for men and women before, during or after marriage, and does not address the issue of consent for spouses.
The fact that the Cairo Declaration was written so many years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would leave one to believe these exclusions to be purposeful. Bielefeldt writes that these are specific issues that are at conflict between universal human rights and Islam (595-96). Article 10 of the Cairo Declaration prohibits the conversion from Islam to another religion. This violates Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims the freedom of religion, which 'includes freedom to change... religion or belief. The Cairo Declaration also specifically addresses the prohibition of colonialism, a western practice, as 'one of the most evil forms of enslavement' (Article 11).
For the most part, the Cairo Declaration claws back some rights specified in the UDHR and reshapes the remaining ones to reflect Islam. Perhaps a document that a majority of Middle Eastern Muslims agreed upon and would only seek to strengthen with their own focused Muslim charter would prove better than a document they seek to neutralize and negate. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights also strongly addresses the issue of colonialism. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights was adopted by the Organization of African Unity on June 17 th, 1981 and entered into force on October 21 st, 1986. In the preamble the Charter states a 'duty to achieve the total liberation of Africa... and undertaking to eliminate colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, zionism and to dismantle aggressive foreign military bases and all forms of discrimination.' The Charter also addresses colonization in article 20-2, 'Colonized or oppressed peoples shall have the right to free themselves from the bonds of domination by resorting to any means...
.' Article 20-3 defines foreign domination as political, economic, or cultural. Both the Middle East and Africa were heavily colonized areas of the world when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, therefore nothing is specifically mentioned about colonialism in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Naturally, both the Cairo Declaration and the African Charter specifically prohibit these practices because of their first hand experience with the negative effects and legacy of Western colonialism. There are other differences between the African Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Chapter II of part I of the Charter goes into depth about an individuals duties, while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights simply mentions that everyone has duties (Article 29). An individual's duties, according to the African Charter, include preserving national unity, independence, and territorial integrity, paying taxes, strengthening African cultural values, and promoting African unity (Article 29).
Also, Article 14 of the African Charter states that the 'right to property shall be guaranteed. It may only be encroached upon in the interest of public need or in the general interest of the community.' The elaboration of an individual's duties and the wording of Article 14 on property make the African Charter sound like more of a socialist, or at least a collectivist, document. This alone does not put the Charter in contradiction with the UDHR, however it does show another example of a culture and society that felt misrepresented by the UDHR. The difference between the Cairo Declaration and the African Charter is that instead of clawing back on several specific articles in the UDHR the African Charter clarifies that an African individual's rights and duties revolve first around Africa and its protection from neocolonialism and it's unity. Many differences exist between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. This shows the lack of universality in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In the case of the Cairo Declaration the disparity in universality in the UDHR focuses on religion, and in the case of the African Charter it is more of a cultural and regional issue. If an overlapping consensus could be reached and a minimum standard could be agreed upon between all cultures then the binding force of such international documents as the International Bill of Human Rights would be much greater and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be called the Declaration of Universally Accepted Human Rights. Specific articles should address the role of slavery and colonialism and their aftermath, as in the Cairo Declaration and the African Charter, as a manner to stimulate a true international and universal role to the documents. In his novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe tells the story of the Igbo tribe and its initial encounter with British imperialists. The main character Okonkwo first loses his oldest son to the British culture and 'the poetry of the new religion' (Achebe 104). Soon the symbols of the tribe's culture are attacked as in the killing of the sacred python by one of the o su converts (Achebe 112).
Achebe never judges either culture but shows what happens when one culture actively seeks to dominate another. First, the Igbo are dominated religiously and culturally, then politically and legally. Okonkwo's friend Obi erika tells him: The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one.
He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart. (Achebe 125) Slowly, Okonkwo's culture is being assimilated and erased. When the British first arrived it was voluntary converts to Christianity that followed the white man, but by the end the British courts and officers are telling the people of Umuofia to break up their village meeting because 'the white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop' (Achebe 144). Achebe shows how one culture can dominate another, politically, economically, and culturally, but the results of colonialism are better shown in another novel. Jamaica Kincaid's novel, A Small Place, tells the reader of a small island nation called Antigua that falling apart due to excessive corruption and exploitation.
This is a free nation, once colonized by Britain, that is still suffering from the effects of imperialism. There are too many examples of Kincaid citing the aftermath of colonialism as the direct cause of the islands corruption. One of the earliest describes the day Antigua became free of Great Britain, 'and Antiguans are so proud of this that each year, to mark the day, they go to church and thank God, a British God, for this' (Kincaid 9). Antiguans religion is that of the old colonists.
Kincaid also tells of how the West refuses to acknowledge the role slavery and underpaid black labor played in making these counties the wealthy economic powers they are today (10). Antigua's natives are descended from slaves. The Antiguan people may no longer be slaves, yet they their Hotel Training School that teaches young Antiguans to be good servants (Kincaid 55). A servant is just a slightly better paid slave.
Perhaps countries are not starting on an equal playing field in regards to human rights, especially economic human rights. Kincaid continues describing the conditions of post-colonial Antigua. She writes that it is 'odd that the only language [she has] in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime' (Kincaid 31). Antigua's national language is English, the language of the colonizers. Even the government of Antigua suffers the lasting effects of colonialism. The island has been ruled by the same government for twenty of the past twenty-five years (Kincaid 70).
The corruption and exploitation of the government in Antigua is just one more thing learned from the English colonial government (Kincaid 33). The people have been exploited since their ancestors first left Africa. First, they were slaves, then a colonized relocated people robbed of their own culture. These issues of colonialism, post-colonialism, and slavery must be addressed in human rights documents in order to represent the vast amount of the population that continues to be affected by their legacy.
Otherwise, a Euro-centric human rights agenda will look and feel like cultural imperialism to the African continent, as well as many Eastern cultures. If the west cannot, at least, admit its own mistakes in the past then how could any other culture trust them in the future. In conclusion, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not universal. Through documents such as the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights one can see failings of the UDHR. These documents, representing mostly Middle Eastern and African People, show some of the voices that were left out of the original drafting of the UDHR. These were a heavily colonized people during this time.
Now with freedom from Western Imperialism these countries justifiably reject many ideas of human rights from the West as cultural imperialism, which is the reason these separate cultural documents are drafted. If a new declaration, entitled the Declaration of Universally Accepted Human Rights or the International Declaration of Human Rights, were drawn up and represented an overlapping consensus of many different cultures that called for the minimum standard of human rights that all agreed upon then this document would be more universal and would be a stronger pillar to base international law. These rights may or may not be inherent in the nature of humans, but internationally the vast majority of countries choose to recognize and accept their existence. Cultures and regions could then write up their on documents adding and strengthening the original declaration for their people if they chose to do so. However, in order for their to be a truly international effort on this task the West must admit and perhaps alleviate some of the burdens placed upon many smaller countries as a result of colonialism and slavery. The new international declaration should also contain articles addressing these issues and outlawing them.
Works Cited Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Oxford: Heinemann, 1958. Bielefeldt, Heiner.
'Muslim Voices in the Human Rights Debate.' Human Rights Quarterly Vol. 17. 4 1995, Johns Hopkins University Press. Online. 18 Oct. 2001.
Center for the Study of Human Rights. Twenty-five Human Rights Documents. New York: Columbia University, 1994. Donnelly, Jack. International Human Rights. Boulder: Westview, 1998.
Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.