More than 200 human rights lawyers and activists in China have been targeted, detained for questioning or reported missing since a nationwide crackdown by the Chinese authorities this July. China’s state-run media has accused them of embellishing sensitive issues into political ones for mobilizing public opinion and denounced their activism as criminal acts aiming to undermine the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The U.S. Department of State has condemned the detentions and raised concerns over China’s new national security laws which forbid the restriction of its citizens’ rights. Nonetheless, the CCP continues to warn the public against incompatible and incendiary Western ideas of civil society, press freedom, rule of law and ‘universal values’ of human rights, insisting on the primacy of pro-government principles.
This matter leads us to question if human rights are essentially a product and construct of Western philosophies that disregard cultural, economic and political realities in various parts of the world.  Are human rights just instruments of Western interventionism, cultural imperialism and neo-colonialism? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) affirms that rights are inherent to all human beings. These rights include basic civil, political, social, economic, cultural and collective rights often represented and embodied by customary national and international law which governments are obliged to uphold. Yet, in today’s pluricultural world, the universality of human rights is repeatedly questioned by the notion of ‘relativism’ which underscores both the ethnocentricism and inapplicability of the UDHR.
President Xi Jinping frequently invokes Confucianism to legitimize the curtailing of individual freedoms and rights, asserting that differences in traditions, history and culture would naturally lead to differences in the understanding of a concept like human rights. Many UDHR sceptics refer to the huge discrepancy between the Western focus on individual rights and the Eastern emphasis on one’s duties to society as an example. While Western political integrities underscore a very human-centred view of the world where a man is to be free from interference by the state, East Asian governments stand by a much more communitarian attitude rooted in Confucianism that treasures familial ties and kinship. Malaysia’s ex-Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, reiterated this divide, stating that the emphasis on individuals would come at the expense of their responsibilities to the community. His claim was corroborated by the Bangkok Declaration of 1967, which declared the UDHR unsuitable for Asia. Hence, different belief systems are shaped by different cultural perceptions with particular and unique emphasises and what one society deems appropriate and justifiable by culture another claims as antithetical to global normative standards. Thus, criticizing other countries for their lack of adherence to human rights can be seen as a threat to the state’s sovereignty and way of life, landing the universalism discourse in a delicate position.
However, the relationship between Chinese culture, modernization and Western liberal ideals extends far beyond the human rights conversation and cannot be elucidated simply by cultural incompatibility. Firstly, we should recognize that the emphasis on individual rights requires a conscientious concern for the common good, indicating that a false opposition occurs when explaining the aforementioned incongruence between individual rights and the individual’s responsibility to society. Secondly and more importantly, it may serve us better at times to shift our focus away from the universalism and applicability discourse to the problem of interpretation, implementation and how human rights have actually influenced government behaviour.
More than 150 countries have endorsed each of the six major human rights treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to name a few. Yet, many of them are blatantly guilty of the above acts. In 2007, Saudi Arabia ratified the CEDAW but still upholds laws that subordinate women. Child labour still exists in India, Tanzania and Uzbekistan, all of whom have ratified the CRC. Structural violence in the form of institutionalized racism can still be found in the U.S. The “language of rights,” constantly in flux and open to a variety of legal interpretations, is too malleable to prevent governments from violating them. It can easily be employed and exploited as humanitarian and ethical rhetoric to appeal to an international audience. For example, Russia cited the rights of ethnic minorities in Ukraine to justify military intervention there. China cited developmental rights to justify why the CCP prioritizes economic growth over granting individuals political freedoms and security rights to justify its punitive enforcement approaches. The U.S. cited that Saddam Hussein committed human rights abuses to justify the 2003 Iraq war and garner public support. These examples reflect that a state’s failure to adhere to human rights highlights the wider obstacles of government implementation, interpretation and manipulation rather than cultural relativism.
The acceptance of the UDHR around the world is hardly uniform, and strongly-held cultural beliefs do contribute to the discrepancies. Nevertheless, we must not neglect a crucial element of the human rights conversation: the presence of a global human rights culture. In the words of Sudanese political leader Abudhllahi Ahmed An-Na’mi, “despite apparent peculiarities and diversity, human beings share fundamental interest and values that can be identified under the framework of a common culture of universal human rights.” This phenomenon is neither culturally specific nor grounded in regional proclivities, but is instead a consequence of modern trans-cultural developments. Ultimately, one can identify inherent characteristics of human rights that make them viable and relevant to each society in the increasingly interconnected world. This is because the concept of human rights is a product of modernization and progress that encompasses industrialization, urbanization, technological innovations and communication revolutions. These developments began in the West not as a result of inherent cultural factors but because of changes occurring at different rates. For example, the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth century Britain led to the growth of a capitalist middle class that in turn fuelled the rise of education for women. The internet revolution welcoming the free-flow of information in the twenty-first century generated individual and intellectual discourse on domestic and international politics, promoting democratic elements in society around the world. Citizen journalism enabled by such a development exposed government repression in Arab nations that culminated in the Arab Spring in 2011. Hence, the fact that human rights have evolved out of such collective struggles disproves the theory that UDHR is ethnocentric to the West.
Then again, perhaps the best way to view human rights should not be through universalist or cultural-relativist lenses but simply through the complexity and instrumentality of ‘context’. That is to say that there cannot be absolutes when it comes to human rights conversations in international relations as each state has its own rationality, each culture its own contingency, constantly changing with the tides.