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Yes, the study of human rights is interesting but comes with several undecided debates. For the years, man has undergone various challenges, the gravest being wars, a closer study shows that wars have always been a result of failed rights. This makes a man’s right a key factor from the genesis. This explains the present-day debate on human rights. Are they universal? Who determines what is universal?

This article aims not at a mere ascertainment of whether human rights are universal but concentrates on a middle ground of who determines what is universal. 

Many instruments and legal scholars have gone ahead to define human rights, but I will consider these, as exhaustively stated in this article from the Black’s Law Dictionary, “the freedoms, immunities, and benefits that, according to modern values (especially at an international level), all human beings should be able to claim as a matter of right in the society in which they live.” This means that these rights need not be written down, for they are inherent and unalienable, and they are possessed by a person by being a human being (from the time of birth to the time of death). These rights serve a variety of purposes for humanity, which include the protection of the dignity of humans and a guarantee that the basic needs of a person will be met. For certainty, I will have to define the term “universal.” This means “extending over, comprehending, or including the whole of something.” In other words, the principle of universality seeks to say that human rights are the same throughout the world.

The United Nations General Assembly, with all members present, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which includes, among other things, equality of man, the right to life, liberty, religion, speech, and so forth. It should be noted that this 1948 declaration served as the foundation for the creation of MODERN INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW. However, this can’t go without mentioning that a closer look through the above statement leaves so many questions, and different schools have different opinions, but being an African, I know the reality, which is the truth. You cannot convince me that all men, regardless of their backgrounds, are born with similar rights. I feel there is a need to set a clear category of rights that may be termed similar. Apart from that, in Africa, we have kings, queens, and peasants that have evolved with the world. The law just empowers people to feel so, but there is a huge social difference. I’ll leave it at that for this article.


In answering such a question, we must get to know the only possible objection. If they aren’t universal, what are they? The philosophical objection asserts essentially that nothing can be universal, and that all rights and values are defined and limited by cultural perceptions. If there is no universal culture, there can never be universal rights. Thus, if human rights are not universal, they are cultural relativists. In reality, the overview of research shows that despite the differences in culture, tribes, religion, and settings, certain things cannot be entertained generally. The truth is that every culture will condemn murder. They will punish thieves. This is a clear indicator that across the globe, the rights to life and property are respected. Thus, universality can be taken to mean that human rights must be the same for everyone and everywhere. Several legal instruments have this as their common point 

The Vienna document itself states that the universal nature of human rights is beyond question. It also says: “all human rights are universal”; adding, however, that “the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind”. This national “margin of appreciation”, as it is called, does not, however, according to the Vienna document, relieve states of their duty to promote and protect all human rights, “regardless of their political, economic, and cultural systems.”

Denying the fact that human rights are universal is like setting off on a trip to an endless destiny.

I find it misconceived by concentrating on the universality of human rights and ignoring the main question, the cause of the debates; 

Who decides on universality?

The debate always revolves around human rights being universal, but in actuality, that’s no question. All people who claim human rights are western concepts. They don’t cater to the differences in culture and so on. It’s because somehow a new movement engulfed in an existent core right is affecting operations in their society. Who is this person who declares that such and such amounts to a right? Do rights evolve? I mean, are there new rights that this generation was born with that have never existed before?

Importantly, one should note that rights are grouped into three (3) kinds;

  • Civil and political rights
  • Economic, social, and cultural rights
  • Group rights

They do rank accordingly. In other words, civil and political rights are ranked first as set by international standards. However, in Africa, group rights were the basis and center of the existence of one. A person’s assentation was never heard before a societal claim (rights came in groups, unlike the present imposed trend that focuses on individualism). Did the policymakers ever survey the implications of rights for specific cultures? Should we ever have a right that springs from Africa to the rest of the world? Should we ever be able to stand our ground against a newly realized right from the west that seeks to distort our morality?

If all the newly realized rights emanate from the west, are we wrong to say that universality is a tool of influence? 

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, too, claims that the declaration reflects “the philosophical and cultural background of its Western drafters” and has called for a new “balance” between “the notions of freedom and responsibility,” and that the bill of rights was issued during years of massive social, political, and economic oppression of Asian and African states by the West. The answer is simple: the West had economic interests in the colonized states, and giving them up was a blow to those interests. As it was, it will still be unless we strike a global balance.

There is a need to harmonize and state a limit to the universality syndrome, otherwise, it can be used as a tool to impose western culture on Africa, hence eradicating African values. A person belongs to a given group not by choice but by birth and natural settings. So long as one still dwells within the territorial setting, one ought to behave as such. Change by the influence of a few introduces no universalism.

My submission is that, since what is universal is regulated, likewise, the limit to universality should be regulated too.

© 2024 Rose Namayanja Foundation

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