A Third World View of Human Rights

By Coomaraswamy, Radhika | UNESCO Courier, May-June 1986 | Go to article overview

A Third World View of Human Rights


Coomaraswamy, Radhika, UNESCO Courier


A Third World view of human rights

TO a great extent, the Third World has not played a creative part in the formulation and implementation of human rights. Though human rights embody many tenets found in all the world's cultures, the theoretical origins of the human rights movement are distinctively Western. The pillar concepts of the movement--liberty, equality, material welfare and self-determination--are formulated in the manner envisioned by the modern movements of nationalism, liberalism and socialism. These movements originated in the West but have influenced political values throughout the world.

These historical origins alone have made many cultural nationalists advocate the rejection of the human rights movement as a universal norm. Violations of human rights are justified in terms of the illegitimacy of certain human rights values in the Third World context. This remains a major crisis for the human rights movement in the latter half of the twentieth century.

What approach should be adopted to reconcile the tension between the inherited tradition of human rights and major developments in the non-Western World? It is inevitable that any such reappraisal must begin with a view of history as a collective experience, a synthetic process of human rights learning and growth. At present there is a need for Third World insights into human rights protection, but the process must be a creative one and not a denial of the very concept of human rights; a process of supplementation and not of derogation.

The problem posed by this polemic between North and South has two aspects. The first is the reconciliation of non-Western cultural values with the basic concepts of human rights. The second is the integration of the "development' experience into the norms and structures of human rights protection. One method of moving towards resolution of these problems would be to regard human rights not as ends in themselves but as a process which implies a certain approach to law, politics and economics. It should be seen as an approach which accentuates the human dilemma above other considerations. …

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