A Step Ahead in Promoting Human Rights? the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council

By McMahon, Edward; Ascherio, Marta | Global Governance, April-June 2012 | Go to article overview

A Step Ahead in Promoting Human Rights? the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council


McMahon, Edward, Ascherio, Marta, Global Governance


The Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council is a peer review mechanism through which states make recommendations to each other regarding human rights practices. Representing new global approaches to promoting human rights, the UPR experiment is critical to the fate of the HRC. Understanding the UPR's performance is timely and of considerable importance considering that the second round of country reviews begins in May 2012. This article analyzes state and regional behavior by utilizing an innovative methodology in which recommendations are coded by level of action requested. It finds that, while long-standing North-South differences regarding definition and protection of human rights remain, the global increase of democratic states modestly attenuates this dichotomy. KEYWORDS: human rights, United Nations, international organizations, peer reviews.

AS A POINT OF DEPARTURE FOR EXAMINATION OF STATE BEHAVIOR IN THE Universal Periodic Review (UPR), we consider the concepts of universalism versus cultural relativism with particular reference to human rights. Universal values emphasize shared, cross-national values; cultural relativity values emphasize the supremacy of individual cultures. Our central argument is that state behavior in the UPR can be explained largely by the extent to which states emphasize a universal human rights approach to international relations, versus those embracing cultural relativism.

Proponents of universal values argue that all human beings have certain basic human rights such as the freedoms of religion, speech, association, and thought. Mary Ann Glendon emphasizes how Eleanor Roosevelt took up this mantle in espousing and shepherding the development of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the single most seminal document legitimizing the universal perspective. (1) Larry Diamond has prolifically articulated the universalist perspective on the applicability of democratic principles globally, for example, in Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation. (2) Nobel Prize winner Amyarta Sen argues not only that personal freedom and individual rights are global in nature, but that they are also inextricably linked to economic development. (3)

The universality of human rights is, however, an issue that has been contested for decades by cultural relativists, who argue either that the debate does not exist; or that, to the extent that such rights do exist, they must be fully mediated and interpreted through the particular social, cultural, and historical prisms of the societies in which people live. Johannes Morsink notes that the UDHR was challenged at its birth by the American Anthropological Association, which queried how the declaration could "be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in countries of Western Europe and America?" (4) These proponents have argued against a broad-based interpretation of human rights. (5) Fareed Zakaria points out that some leading figures in the developing world such as Singapore's former chief minister Lee Kuan Yew have argued that there are "Asian values" rather than universal norms. (6) Rhonda L. Calloway and Julie Harrelson-Stephens argue that this perspective provides not only a critique but an alternative to the Western perspective by emphasizing state sovereignty, respect for hierarchy and authority, and an emphasis on economic and social rights. (7) This view holds that the West is too individualistic, that it suffers from a crumbling civil society, and that it has sought to impose its values inappropriately in non-Western contexts. Counterclaims are that Asia is not homogenous and that the "Asian values" argument has been advanced by Asian governments or their supporters who benefit politically by doing so. (8)

In recent years, there has been significant questioning of the compatibility of Islamic and democratic values. Samuel Huntington's influential work The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is seminal in this regard. …

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A Step Ahead in Promoting Human Rights? the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council
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