Universal Human Rights?

Professor Tanya Monforte

Professor Tanya Monforte sat down with The Choices Program to discuss her own work on human rights and the persistent question of the universality of human rights—a question debated since the UN’s development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Many individuals struggling for human rights use the Declaration to press for change. But some proponents of human rights continue to question the legitimacy of the global human rights system. They argue that it was born in an era when non-Western conceptions of rights were frequently excluded and shunned.

“[W]e must realize that the current human rights represent just one tradition, that of Europe.... It will remain incomplete and illegitimate in non-European societies unless it is reconstructed to create a truly multicultural mosaic.... Ideas do not become universal merely because powerful interests declare them to be so. Inclusion—not exclusion—is the key to legitimacy.”

—Makau Mutua, Kenyan-born professor of law and human rights, 2002

  • Is it possible to agree on a definition of human rights given the diversity of values held by people around the world?
  • Are there certain rights that are universal? Are there rights that are dependent on culture or life circumstance?
  • In what ways can promoting universal rights be detrimental or harmful?
  • In what ways can opposing universal rights be detrimental or harmful?

These are a few of the questions that high school students consider in Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Policy. Produced by The Choices Program with funding from the Carnegie Corporation, the curriculum materials include readings, activities, and nearly one hundred video clips of Brown scholars and distinguished visitors.