The Complexity of Universalism in Human Rights


The Complexity of Universalism in Human Rights



Published as Chapter 2 in Human Rights With Modesty: The Problem of Universalism, András Sajó, ed.

This piece suggests that all claims of universalism must be approached with caution and trepidation. Visions of universality and predestination have been intertwined throughout modern history, and have been deployed as the linchpin for advancing narrow, secretarian, and exclusionary ideas and practices. Universality is not a natural phenomenon, but is always constructed by an interest for a specific purpose with a definite interest. How are local truths legitimately transformed into universal creeds? What value judgments are made, who makes those judgments, how they are made, and for what purposes? Ultimately, we must ask ourselves what good is intended by universal creeds - and whether they redound to the benefits of peoples everywhere. This piece presents a view of human rights that questions the assumptions of the major actors in the human rights movement. It attempts to make an explicit link between human rights norms and the fundamental characteristics of liberal democracy as practiced in the West, and to question the mythical elevation of the human rights corpus beyond politics and political ideology.

Publication Date



Martinus Nijhoff Publishers





First Page



Universalism, Human rights, Liberal democracy, West, Norms, Third World


Human Rights Law | Law


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The Complexity of Universalism in Human Rights