Is the concept of human rights non-ideological?

The concept of universal ‘human rights’ faces huge challenges in a culturally diverse global setting

The emergence of the concept of human rights is an inevitable consequence of European Enlightenment, writes Moslih [EPA]

The modern model of citizenship is based upon the theory of universal rights and obligations. Its origin lies in the seventeenth century concept of “natural rights” and in the twentieth century has come to be known as the doctrine of human rights.

Today, it has become almost impossible to engage in political discourse without referring to rights – the right to life, the right to free speech, the right to abortion, the right to property, the right to security etc all of these rights are put under the umbrella of human rights.  

Although contending ideological viewpoints use the term human rights in everyday political discourse, it is not clear what the term “rights” refers to and how it should be used. If we define rights as an entitlement to act or be treated in a particular manner, then a lot of questions arise.

Where does this entitlement come from and who defines the limits of such an entitlement? At the heart of the notion of “universal human rights” lies the assumption that all humans are born equal. How does this equality translate into equal rights or entitlements in reality or in a world where inequality persists? How should we define equality or justice, how should we define human?

Islam and human rights

Were we humans at an embryonic stage or our humanity begins at birth, or perhaps we become human once we accept a liberal view of life, other than that, we could be pre-emptively killed by drones or aborted in an act that would ensure a good life for those who are truly human?

Furthermore, how could we reconcile human rights based on the notion of equality while knowing that humans are not identical?

For example, Muslims acknowledge that humans are created equal by Allah. The Quran (ch49:v13:) says “O mankind We have created you from a single male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another but the best of you in the sight of Allah is the most pious of you”.

The truth is, early Enlightenment philosophers were not concerned with the rights of women, peasants, workers, or slaves, and instead they were merely hypothesising and legitimising the rights and liberties of the early capitalist white men.

Here, the Quran refers to the common ancestry of mankind and equates everyone to the same rank and then distinguishes between them only on the basis of their goodness. While the Quran equates everyone as human, it also discriminates between male and female.

For instance, males will receive a larger share of inheritance compared to women. Men have the right to marry up to four wives, but women must be monogamous.

For non-Muslims, these differentiations are against the tenets of human rights, and contrary to the principle of equality. Islam does not equate justice and equality to sameness. Parents may purchase different sanitary goods for their daughter compared to their son; they are different but not the same, is that unjust and does it constitute violation of rights? 

In non-Muslim societies, women enjoy rights that men do not. Because of their needs and capacities, women enjoy some rights related to childbirth, maternity leave or child care. Could rights that do not encompass all of humanity be regarded as fundamental human rights?

In short, at the social level there is no consensus on human rights that is because rights-based theories are also ideological. 

The emergence of the concept of human rights is an inevitable consequence of European Enlightenment. The point that values precede rights and the concept of universal human rights faces huge challenges in a culturally diverse global setting. The controversies over the wearing of burqa and freedom of expression in Europe are some examples these challenges.    

It is a mistake to think that Enlightenment was a long revolution intended to free man and establish universal human rights. The truth is, early Enlightenment philosophers were not concerned with the rights of women, peasants, workers, or slaves, and instead they were merely hypothesising and legitimising the rights and liberties of the early capitalist white men.

In our age the battle has shifted from its exclusive narrative to a universal one. However, its liberal parameters giving primacy to individuals over institutions remain the same and to date individuals precede the formation of “civil society”.

The concept of “human rights” is therefore essentially liberal. It holds that individuals have natural immutable rights that are universal. Though Enlightenment deposed religion, it inevitably sat on the same throne. It too declared itself universal, replaced the sovereignty of God with sovereignty of man and God with nature. However, it kept the concept of rule but justified it differently.

What is well-being?

Understanding this pattern allows us to realise why natural human rights became an important pillar of European Enlightenment. With God and the theory of “divine rights” out of the way, how were we to legitimise rule? This is why Enlightenment philosophers have turned to nature in order to find “objective laws” through scientific methods and human reasoning.  

Enlightenment did not save Europe from its squabbles, war and injustices; instead, through technological advances it added to the efficiency of war and injustice. It legitimised racism through social Darwinism based on scientific discoveries and assumptions.

It enslaved millions of people within a monopoly of capitalism. So, is the world more peaceful since Enlightenment and scientific discoveries? Have we become more moral and ethical? What is the relationship between moral progress, science and reason?

Furthermore, it is impossible to develop a harmonised human rights philosophy that is not circular. At the heart of the issue of human rights runs the issue of justice and at the heart of justice runs the issue of happiness and it is argued that happiness is attained through acquiring a good life and a good life is one that insures everyone’s well-being.

But how do we define well-being? Could we define well-being without having something in mind? Is well-being value neutral? Could everyone’s well-being be insured or should we settle for the majority, and would this be a moral position? Is morality relative and utilitarian and could we rationalise morality?

These questions have led many political philosophers to pursue the lowest common denominator of values among human beings as the foundation on which a social contract could be built. John Rawls proposed his solution in his book A Theory of Justice, arguing that rights come before values.

I ask, would that be so if it was not initially agreed that the individual take primacy over society, is this not a liberal value?

Hashmat Moslih is a political analyst and comentator on Afghanistan. He has an MA on International Urban and Environment Management and served as an advisor to the former president of Afghanistan Burhanudeen Rabbani.