Making human rights ‘universals’ from the ground up?

Authored by: Lisa S. Alfredson

Routledge Handbook on Human Rights and the Middle East and North Africa

Print publication date:  November  2016
Online publication date:  November  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138807679
eBook ISBN: 9781315750972
Adobe ISBN: 9781317613763


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International human rights are increasingly integral to many domestic landscapes—a significant sign of consensus as to their global relevance and legitimacy. Yet it remains the case that individual value judgements are culturally informed, and in our diverse world contention about human rights continues in various forms. The downward and outward geographical spread or expanding implementation of international human rights demonstrates some degree of compliance with international law, but not necessarily domestic legitimacy among actors with different normative traditions. In this universalism versus relativism debate, 1 contention about the origins and global relevance of human rights generally takes the norms in question for granted as pre-formed, unchanging, or fixed. Yet, what we think of as ‘universal human rights’ today is in many ways different from the human rights of yesterday; human rights have adapted, changed, and expanded with the changing times. The clearest evidence of this is the proliferation of human rights law since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. To name a few prominent developments, new Conventions on women (1979), children (1989), and people with disabilities (2006) have brought profound changes in human rights’ scope and substance, overcoming entrenched human rights’ biases that excluded non-state actor violence, the ‘private’ or family sphere, and individual rights within social relations of dependence and difference.

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