Relativity or universality: a false dichotomy that violates human rights

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‘Can We Still Afford Human Rights?’ This was the provocative question asked by the four editors of the book Can We Still Afford Human Rights? Critical Reflections on Universality, Proliferation and Costs (Edward Elgar 2020). A question which several authors aim to answer in their contributions to the book. In the volume, 14 chapters focus on one of the three interlinked topics of universality, proliferation and costs. In this blog series, three posts relating to the book focus on one of these topics respectively. In this post, Nick Goetschalckx explains why the difference between relative and universal views of human rights constitutes a false dichotomy that threatens to keep focus away from the essence of human rights.

“Difference is of the essence of humanity.” With these seven words, John Hume establishes an essential balancing act between difference and humanity. Relativists would get lost in the differences and never find a common humanity, while universalists would rush to humanity and trample differences along the way. In a world of oppression and dehumanisation, we cannot afford to be misguided by these false dichotomies. We need to focus on the essence, just like the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did more than 70 years ago.

A compromise over God, Nature, and Humanity   

In September 1948, the Third Committee of the United Nations was mandated to scrutinise the draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) before passing it on to the General Assembly for final approval. Composed of officials from the then 58 UN Member States and chaired by Lebanon, the Third Committee became known as one of the most turbulent bodies in the UN’s history, meeting 81 times between 30 September and 7 December 1948.

A debate that stretched six long meetings and more than one week concerned the first article of the UDHR. Delegates agreed that Article 1 should set out the foundation of the Declaration, but they disagreed about what constituted that foundation. The draft Declaration stated that all human beings were ‘endowed by nature with reason and conscience’, but the Brazilian and Dutch Delegation proposed to amend this phrase with references to God and humankind’s divine origin.

These proposals were met with considerable opposition from other delegations who did not want to undermine the universal acceptability of the Declaration. After multiple revisions and negotiations, the Committee settled on a Belgian compromise, strongly supported by the Chinese representative, to remove both God and Nature from Article 1. The new draft article would later be adopted in its entirety by the General Assembly.

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

An agreement about the rights,  on condition that no one asks why

This drafting history underlines that the Declaration is written for all people and all reasonable doctrines. International human rights were not tied to a particular doctrine precisely in order to allow the rights fibre to be woven into different doctrines (and vice versa). Elaborating a conception of human rights without connecting that conception to a particular set of beliefs is called ‘justificatory minimalism’.

The minimisation of global justifications facilitated the maximisation of global justice. By deleting the references to God and Nature, the adherents of different doctrines found an overlapping consensus on a comprehensive list of international human rights. This in turn inspired a rich and widely endorsed body of binding international human rights treaties. French philosopher Jacques Maritain famously noted: “We agree on the rights on the condition that no one asks us why”. This is not because there is no good answer as to why but because there is a reasonable pluralism of answers.

The UDHR is therefore both universal and relative: it simultaneously valorises the disagreement despite agreement (qualified relativism) and agreement in spite of disagreement (qualified universalism). It is the synthesis of relativity and universality that gives meaning to the international human rights project. In this regard, the Declaration is not a definite programme to settle differences, but an indefinite invitation to struggle, to dialogue, and to cooperate on the essence of humanity.

A Declaration for the essence of humanity  

But where is the essence of humanity when more than 12,000 men, women, and children are left without food, water, and shelter in Europe’s largest refugee camp? The COVID-19 pandemic, the unprecedented number of displaced people, structural inequalities, climate change, and the rise of artificial intelligence, all raise essential questions about human dignity and justice. At the same time, human rights seem to face growing resistance and backlash.

In this context of global challenges to human rights and humanity, human rights theorists and practitioners need to strategically choose their discourses. Can we still afford to  be locked inside the intellectual cages of relativism or universalism? The drafters founded the Declaration on a relative universality to avoid these foundational challenges and to unlock the political purpose of international human rights. In the same spirit, we should refocus on the Declaration as a common standard of achievement for all.

By emancipating the Declaration from the false dichotomy between universalism and relativism, we can re-establish the international human rights framework as a true meeting ground to strive for the essence of humanity. By telling the magical story about how the drafters of the Declaration overcame their differences to find the essence of humanity, we can rediscover a belief in—and even a mythification of—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to inspire people and justice. In other words, humanity is of the essence of difference.

Nick Goetschalckx is an environmental lawyer at ClientEarth. He previously worked for the Delegation of the European Union to Cameroon and the ONE Campaign. Nick holds a Master’s degree in Law from the University of Antwerp and a Master’s degree in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science.


N. GOETSCHALCKX, "Relativity or universality: a false dichotomy that violates human rights", Leuven Blog for Public Law, 16 November 2020, https://www.leuvenpubliclaw.com/relativity-or-universality-a-false-dichotomy-that-violates-human-rights (geraadpleegd op 3 December 2020)

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