Let us set the stage for a daring play on the human spirit. The play is called ‘Human Rights’, and the first act nears its end. Act 1 has shown us daring tales from the 16th century until present day about the persevering ideal that human rights are for all. On centre stage stands the heroin, Universality. A bold and brave character that pushes against the obstacles she faces. So far, we, the audience, have never seen her succeed entirely, although progress has been made. But then - the orchestra begins a crescendo. A gun shot is heard, and our heroin falls to the ground. Dead. The curtain closes. Over a crackly speaker a voice informs the audience that there is a 20 minute break before Act 2 continues.
This is an essay on ‘universality’ as a concept within human rights discourse, history, and narratives. The identifies and critiques the concept, before suggesting ever-so boldly, that it should be removed from the human rights discipline, so that the field of human rights can go further in its goal of furthering human protection. This is done by using a tool from creative writing called ‘kill your darlings’, suggesting that within this metaphor, universality is the ‘darling’ that needs to be ‘killed’ in order to fully appreciate and take into account the diversity that exists in the world. Whatever lies beyond universality, will be the new main character in Act 2 of our play.
Universality in human rights, plays on a ‘maximal utopia’1 that has been marketed to the Global North and South alike, that all humans, regardless of circumstance, are entitled to rights by the very virtue of being human. In fact, the first and second articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts exactly this.2 Thus making the UDHR universal both in name, writing, and aspirations. Barreto talks of a ‘standard theory of human rights’ as one where universality within human rights considers human rights to be ‘context-less’.3 Specifically, the ‘universalising variation’ identifies concepts such as “human dignity, equal treatment, freedom and protection”, all considered core elements of human rights in general, to be found in ancient civilizations and modern cultures all across the world.4 However, universality can also be found contextually.
Hunt discusses how rights became conceived as universal in the period from late 16th to the late 18th century.5 Enlightenment philosophy brought with it notions of natural rights. They were natural because they were endowed to all rational men, simple by virtue of existing, while also being without religious connection.6 Hunt’s emphasis on the enlightenment and its surrounding revolutions7 as a beginning, means she is an example of the narrative which Slotte and Halme-Tuomisaari has identified as “the Tale of Imagined Antiquity”. Charles Walton, another who wrote within the ‘Imagined Antiquity’ narrative, showcases how the ideals of this period survived the 18th century, and that they can now be found in most modern rightsconcerned constitutions.8 While it is likely that Walton here refers to an array of international agreements and national constitutions, the primary text of the modern age that covers huma rights, while also copying to a large extent the language used, and ideals of the 18th century period, is the UDHR.
After the UDHR was adopted in 1948, human rights became a global phenomenon.9 This big change in human rights positioning in the international space, may be part of why some consider human rights history to have a more explosive beginning. This narrative aptly named ‘the Big Bang Theory’, after the astrophysics hypothesis10 is one that considers the adoption of the UDHR in 1948 “the foundational moment for the contemporary human rights phenomenon”.11 Some, like Mazower, fall under the group of scholars who follow this narrative, whereas others, such as Quataert and Wildenthal, and Barreto criticize it as a poor starting point. 12 The UDHR offered an institutionalizing of universal human rights in the international space, and thus, one might look at how these universal rights were received and understood post-adoption. Moses, Duranti, and Burke wrote that “newly independent nationstates of the 1950s and 1960s momentarily combined the aspirations of citizenship and the “rights of man” with the more maximal universalism exemplified by the [UDHR].”13 Here we see how the UDHR sparked sense of hope in maximalist universal human rights, yet, we find that this isn’t the case. When writing about how rights are revolutionary in nature, Hunt makes sure to remind her reader that “all men” of the 17th century, excluded an array of people, from women to men of different religions, races, or citizenship.14 While the French ‘Rights of Man’, while presumably referring to mankind as a whole, some men “who used the phrase thought some rights, especially political ones, pertained only to men, as in the male sex.”15 This next section will look at this hinted hypocrisy - that the ideal of universality has never existed.
A Critique of Universality
Human rights claims “adherence to universality, neutrality, and nonpartisan values”,16 yet it is strongly tied to power through “imperial projects, national and elite self-interest, and the preservation of economic inequality.”17 Barrato argued that “the key events of [human rights] history remain concentrated, within the borders of Europe, or are interpreted from the European horizon of understanding”.18 A prevailing critique of human rights in general, and universality more narrowly, is therefore that human rights are strongly Eurocentric.19 Apart from Barrato, also Mouffe,20 and Quataert and Wildenthal,21 bring up issues of eurocentrism as a problem that human rights as a discipline currently faces. A consequence of a continued Eurocentric human rights discipline is discussed by Barrato, who argued that “the problematic of interactions between empires and colonies” are being put aside. In his eyes, Eurocentric human rights are blinded from seeing the possibility of non-Eurocentric or Third-World approaches”.22 His proposition is thus, in many ways, that there are more than one ideal solution to ensure that humans live good lives, and that the ‘third world’ might have cultural practices, that while not human rights, are better served to ensure human dignity. But also, it raises questions on whether what Eurocentric voices deem as human rights, could be experienced as violations in other cultures and societies.
Another important aspect of this section is looking at how universality was never more than a lofty utopian goal which never has been, and possibly never can be achieved. Firstly, the very basis of maximal universalism, meaning rights for all, was rejected by British political leadership in the 1950s and 60s, when “Equal rights for all civilised men” was a slogan “used to justify segregation throughout British African settler colonies.”23 From this, we see clearly that even though the British supported and adopted the UDHR, they still had their qualms about how far exactly this ‘universal declaration’ should extend. Clearly, that extension stopped well ahead of colonial subjects who were deemed too uncivilised for human rights. Interestingly enough, there is another case, deal with universality in a reverse matter from this first case. Burke’s research into the ‘Third World’ found that many post-colonial states rejected human rights, as they dismissed the so-called universal human rights to be “a new mode of imperialism.”24 Here, the local post-colonial people seemingly felt as if human rights imposed on them were akin to colonialism.
In other words, and particularly in the couple of decades following the UDHR, we see that the so called universal human rights were neither considered universal by the former imperial states, nor by the post-colonial states whom the rights were pushed onto. You could argue that similar processes are in place today. The EU, World Bank, and other organizations take democracy and human rights promotion into account when considering what and how states who seek it, receive foreign aid.25 And while who is considered ‘civilised’ has spread far since the 1950s, human rights remain out of reach for the stateless peoples of the world, of which there are roughly 12 million people according to United Nations estimates.26 As of the present day, universality seems to have consistently been part of the rights discourse, yet, it has just as consistently, never been true. This brings us to the third and final section of the paper, which intends to present an argument for scrapping universalism completely from human rights.
Kill your Darling Universality
If universalism is one of the many darlings of human rights supporters, then this essay proposes that human rights should kill their darlings. Not in the sense of a point blank gun shot, but rather taking a piece of advice from creative writing and literature. The idiom ‘kill your darlings’ means to “get rid of an unnecessary storyline, character, or sentences in a piece of creative writing—elements you may have worked hard to create but that must be removed for the sake of your overall story.”27 The key here is to firmly acknowledge that yes, universalism brings with it great ideals that in theory, presents a maximum utopia of human equality. But, we should question if ultimate equality really is the goal, or world, we should strive for within human rights. Mouffe is argued for relinquishing “the illusory hope for a political unification of the world”, and that in so doing, “accept that the path followed by the west is not the only possible and legitimate one. Non-western societies can follow different trajectories according to the specificity of their cultural traditions and of their religions.”28 Equality for all with human rights, does not necessarily allow for diversity of thought, cultures, and other traditions. The human rights discipline should face the possibility that the path followed and chosen by the west is not the only correct one, nor even necessarily the best one. Universality is rooted in western and European philosophy and history, and its goal of ‘one size fits all’ human rights is abjectly rejected by Mouffe, who believes that such a ‘formula’ of human unification under “a single mode of life is inconceivable because it would be completely ossified.” 29
Human rights should kill its darling, so to work with the diversities of the world in order to see that there are more other geographical contexts that matter, than the western Eurocentric one.30 Stephen King once wrote “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”31 Universality is an admirable goal for those from a western background, and it has long given activists and advocates a reason to promote rights in order to protect human lives, but moving away from universality does not, and should not, mean that one completely forgoes championing human lives and dignity. In fact, I would argue that it doesn’t mean moving away from human rights at all. Hunt asserts in her text that “human rights can never be one fixed thing, whether by declaration, bill of rights or other itemization. It is a field of conflict, not a defined goal.”32 Universality in human rights seem to have a historical tendency to seem colonial in nature, as western people bring their human rights to post-colonial countries just like their ancestors brought Christian scripture to ‘un-civilised’ continents hundreds of years ago.
In conclusion, universality is one among many things that upon first inspection seem to be a good thing. In fact, the sentiment behind it, especially when reviewed through my own Eurocentric eyes, seem noble. But that is exactly why we should review it. Coming from a political science background, while studying human rights, mean that there are strong emotions tied to the word ‘kill’ or ‘killing’, and especially when encouraging the action. However, context matters. This essay has demonstrated how universalism is an ideal at the very core of human rights, but that it also is a Eurocentric one. When one considers furthermore that this very eurocentrism pushes some cultures, societies and perspectives beyond the edges of the margins, its cause to ask what striving for universal human rights means, and whether universality is worth pursuing. Equality and sameness for all has never been something that has rung true about modern European, or Global North societies, and when that is the case, then their ideas of natural rights and universality may not be the right tool to ensure care of human lives.
And so, human rights should kill their darling. They should slay the phoenix and hope a better one can rise from its ashes, and promote a more diverse form of human rights. That work should not be led by the Global North, whose promotion of universal rights have both excluded the global south by design and been accused of neo-colonial practice. Rather, it’s time for our heroin to step aside, out of the limelight. There are many diverse voices in the cast that have yet to shine, who should be listened to. The play of Human Rights shall continue to tell a story which asserts that humans should be protected. But Act 2 calls for a change in the storyline of a heroin looking for a lofty utopia of maximal universality. When the play moves into Act 2, we might see rights be awarded more broadly, to more people, while being different based on need, circumstance, and context. It will be quite the performance.
3,7,16,18,19,22,30Barreto, José-Manuel. Human Rights from a Third World Perspective: Critique, History and International Law. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.
25Börzel, Tanja A., and Thomas Risse. ‘One Size Fits All! EU Policies for the Promotion of Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law’. In Workshop on Democracy Promotion, 4:33. Center for Development, Democracy and the Rule of Law: Stanford University Stanford, 2004.
24Burke, Roland. ‘12 Decolonization, Development, and Identity: The Evolution of the Anticolonial Human Rights Critique, 1848-78’. In The Routledge History of Human Rights, edited by Jean H. Quataert and Lora Wildenthal, 320–48. New York: Routledge, 2020.
5,7,14,15,32Hunt, Lynn. ‘Revolutionary Rights’. In Revisiting the History of Human Rights, edited by Pamela Slotte and Miia Marika Halme-Tuomisaari, 1–36. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
27,31Masterclass. ‘What Does It Mean to Kill Your Darlings? - 2023’. MasterClass, 8 September 2021. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-does-it-mean-to-kill-your-darlings.
May, Andrew, and Elizabeth Howell. ‘What Is the Big Bang Theory?’ Space.com, 18 November 2022. https://www.space.com/25126-big-bang-theory.html.
9,12Mazower, Mark. ‘The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933–1950’. The Historical Journal 47, no. 2 (2004): 379–98.
1,13Moses, A. Dirk, Marco Duranti, and Roland Burke. ‘Introduction: Human Rights, Empire, and After’. In Decolonization, Self-Determination, and the Rise of Global Human Rights Politics, edited by Roland Burke, Marco Duranti, and A. Dirk Moses, 1–32. Cambridge University Press, 2020.
20,28,29Mouffe, Chantal. ‘Democracy, Human Rights and Cosmopolitanism: An Agonistic Approach’. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Moyn, Samuel. Not Enough. Harvard University Press, 2018.
17,21Quataert, Jean H., and Lora Wildenthal. ‘Introduction: An Open-Ended and Contingent History of Human Rights’. In The Routledge History of Human Rights, edited by Jean H. Quataert and Lora Wildenthal, 1–17. New York: Routledge, 2020.
4,6,7,11,19Slotte, Pamela, Halme-Tuomisaari, Miia Marika. ‘Introduction’. In Revisiting the History of Human Rights, edited by Pamela Slotte and Miia Marika Halme-Tuomisaari, 1–36. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
23Terretta, Meredith. ‘Claiming Land, Claiming Rights in Africa’s Internationally Supervised Territories.’ In Social Rights and the Politics of Obligation in History, edited by Steven LB Jensen and Charles Walton, 264–86. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022.
26UNHCR. ‘“12 Million” Stateless People Globally, Warns UNHCR Chief in Call to States for Decisive Action’. UN News, 13 November 2018. https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/11/1025561.
2United Nations General Assembly. ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. United Nations. United Nations, 1948. https://www.un.org/en/about us/universal-declarationof-human-rights.
8Walton, Charles. ‘4 Who Pays? Social Rights and the French Revolution’. In Social Rights and the Politics of Obligation in History, edited by Steven LB Jensen and Charles Walton, 107–41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022.