Human Rights: A Western Construct?


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr.

            Different types of governments subscribe to different types of political philosophies. Political philosophies are similar to religious philosophies in that they guide adherents in a particular direction through the establishment of norms. To what extent a particular political philosophy implicates government protection of citizens is oft-times a pre-requisite for a political leader’s acceptance or rejection and works synergistically to the government’s willingness to assume or accept the responsibility of protecting citizens. Christopher Marsh and Daniel Payne echo this point when stating, “If one listens to various leaders from developing countries, one will hear a whole range of justifications for not protecting certain human rights, such as the assertion that in their culture a uniquely different priority is placed on the rights in questions” (Marsh and Payne 2007). Logic follows that just because one government or multiple governments have normalized a certain issue or principle that does not mean that all have. This speaks to the legitimacy of the notion that ‘Human Rights are a Western construct that should not be imposed on non-Western countries.’

The idea that human rights is a ‘Western construct’ may additionally  stem from the fact the United Nations is the global entity responsible for upholding human rights and the organization does so by establishing norms that member states agree to cooperate with. In 1948, to enhance the potentiality of cooperation the UN established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UN Charter followed the Atlantic Charter which was the result of a meeting between (Western) American President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. Article 1 of the UN Charter expresses the purposes of maintaining international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, achieve cooperation, and be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations (United Nations 2013). As un-westernized as that may sound, the first meeting (1946) leading to the drafting of the UDHR took place in (Western) Hunter College, New York and much of the language contained in the UDHR mirrors the (Western) American Declaration of Independence (United Nations 2013).

However, complicating this notion is the fact non-western members of the UN subscribe to the universal values set out in the UDHR and the two covenants (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) that make up the International Bill of Human Rights (United Nations 2013). These diverse member states codify their own legal responsibility through the ratification of human rights treaties obligating them to respect, protect, and facilitate human rights (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2013). Essentially, universality of human rights does not tend to ignore the possibilities of different religious, cultural, or political philosophies, but strives to avoid contradicting the aspirations of all humanity (Tharoor 1999). Finally, although the legal framework for what is to be implied as ‘human rights’ may partially be a ‘Western Construct,’ the universalistic nature or components should not be relegated to the realm of individualized national philosophy, culture, or religion.


Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. What are human rights? . 2013. (accessed November 13, 2013).

Marsh, Christopher, and Daniel P. Payne. 2007. “The Globalization of Human Rights and the Socialization of Human Rights Norms.” Brigham Young University Law Review 2007, no. 3: 665-687. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 14, 2013).

Tharoor, Shashi. “Tharoor: Are Human Rights Universal?” World Policy Journal XVI, no. 4 (1999). (accessed November 13, 2013).

United Nations. Charter. 2013. (accessed November 13, 2013).

United Nations. Meetings. 2013. (accessed November 13, 2013).

United Nations. Charter. 2013. (accessed November 13, 2013).

United Nations. Human Rights Law. 2013. (accessed November 13, 2013).


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