Universalism and Dissent: Human Rights in a Changing World

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago this winter, the United Nations General Assembly adopted, without dissent, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This landmark manifesto aimed to promote respect for basic human rights and freedoms, and to "secure their universal and effective recognition and observance." Ratified in the dark yet hopeful days after the Second World War, the Declaration was seen as a powerful unifying force--not only as a means of bringing together the world's nations in common purpose, but also as a way to ensure the dignity and protection of all its citizens.

The human rights discourse has evolved much over the last half-century; indeed, recent years have seen the proliferation of arguments less "universal" in nature, including, for example, calls for a separate set of "Asian values" of human rights. These voices of dissent, among others, have necessitated a critical reexamination of the idea that human rights are universal in character.

This issue of the Harvard International Review examines the current state of human rights in our rapidly changing world. Amartya Sen introduces the symposium by evaluating the claim that non-Western societies are inherently inimical to so-called "Western" standards of liberty and freedom. Next, two prominent academics explore the relationship between particular religo-philosophical traditions and human rights. …