The claim of universality of human rights is one of the most contested strands of the human rights discourse. The origin of human rights can be traced back to the West identifying issues within their continent and consequent efforts to find solutions for the same. Although human rights claim to be universal, liberal, neutral, and inclusive [i] yet the most common criticism of human rights is its Eurocentric (west-centric) approach and ignorance towards the “others”. Hence, the inception of the modern human rights discourse was shaped by the atrocities that took place during World War II. Since World War II, the entire human rights discourse has been shaped with a Eurocentric vision where Western notions of human rights are construed to be the universal human rights ideal. The narratives and history of different cultures, traditions, races, and groups have been completely overlooked by the West in this process. Although international organizations have over the years come up with various conventions and treaties on human rights issues, they have failed to come up with active measures to protect the rights of persecuted communities, prevent atrocities and genocides. The effectiveness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is thus debatable. This paper attempts to critically analyze the Eurocentric vision of the existing human rights practices as well as International Human rights organizations like the United Nations (UN). It also highlights how claims of universality and inclusion have synchronized with exclusion and subservience of several groups in light of the racism and Black Lives Matter movement.

Implication of Historical Ignorance of the Global South

The concept of human rights is not devoid of historical relevance. It is deeply indoctrinated in a continuing Western ideological and cultural dominance. The goals, means, and outcomes of the human rights movement have been structured by the impulse of keeping Eurocentric ideals as the main focal point, demonizing the rest of the cultures and groups across the globe as “others”. The author opines that deriving its means from the ideology of “The White Man’s Burden”, these “others'' are regarded as inferior and uncivilized people who can only be redeemed by Eurocentric norms of human rights. Western states and international organizations are depicted as the saviors while the “others'' are regarded as ‘evil savages’ in human rights discourse.

Neither the inhuman enslavement of Africans along with its genocidal proportions and brutal consequences, nor the colonization of peoples of countries of the Global South was sufficient to move the West to start a human rights crusade. It took the genocidal annihilation of white Jews in Europe to begin the process of the codification and globalization of human rights.[ii] White Supremacy has always played a significant role to encourage racism since Plessy v Ferguson [iii] which established the principle of separate but equal. Amnesty International (AI) was established to deal with human rights desecrations in Europe but not the third world. The International Court Justice (ICJ) was created as a tool for the West in the Cold War.

Hence, it can be contended that the human rights movement was an initiative to curb problems arising in the West while atrocities across the globe for centuries like apartheid and slavery of Africans were conveniently ignored. The third world, racially and culturally oppressed communities should be a critical area for human rights concerns. The Eurocentric vision construes human rights as a part of modernity's narrative of progress and a step ahead in the progress of human development and civilizational maturity [iv] but ignorance of the past of the “others” is highly inconsistent with the ideals of liberalism and universalism which are the foundation of the entire human rights movement.

Role of International Organisations

The UN has played a significant role in the universalization of Eurocentric human rights norms as it has been dominated by Western powers since its formation. Hence, Western ideals and philosophy is considered to be the ideal thought behind the human rights movement. During the drafting of the UDHR, the main drafters were the same parties committing atrocities upon oppressed people , like the United States (US) on African Americans. ‘I always say International organizations are “toothless bulldogs”, as states find a way to circumvent their rules especially during the BLM protests, I do not recall any form of active measures taken by International organizations apart from dropping statements that hold no force’, say a Nigerian Student in a personal interview.[v]The UN has gone to the extent of preventing its employees from participating in any form of public demonstration . The reasoning of the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres that international civil servants should be impartial was in itself faulty, as the side opposing the protesters was racist.

Racism goes against the core principles of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which has been ratified by the US but not complied with, in seven key areas as per a -report of Human Rights Watch. The Eurocentric power struggle was seen when members of the Western European and Other States Group (WEOG) bullied the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) into passing a generic resolution rather than a specific one demanding an inquiry commission to investigate the actions of the United States. The UN represents its veto-wielding members to make sure that crimes go unpunished if the alleged accused is one with the veto powers. The UN cannot be thoroughly blamed as its funding is maintained by the US and its former colonizers. ‘These organizations need real enforcement power and major funding from other countries themselves, otherwise, we have a saying in Africa that you cannot bite the hands that feed you.’[vi] Though a huge reason for the bias is the funding, the internal working of the UN is racist towards its diversity hires. Ironically, their treatment as token representatives is a problem, where they are also expected to act grateful for getting hired. This discrimination led to a movement in the aid sector, which along with sexual harassment included racial discrimination faced by black women and women of colour. . This tokenism of the oppressed persons was also seen when Human Rights Watch finally made a report on caste violence in India in 1999. Human rights abuse related to caste violence has been ongoing in the country for more than two centuries but it was only reported twenty-one years back.


The propagation of laws in the name of human rights serves as a reminder which establishes how our good intentions, desires and liberal swords may have turned into boomerangs. The human rights promise of advancement, liberation, and universalism, has been exposed as myopic, exclusive, and conversant by a series of global anxieties in the contemporary period. Human rights are bound to fail if only western perspective is considered a benchmark for liberal ideology. . The refusal of many countries to ratify important multilateral treaties along with the violations of already ratified contributes majorly towards further oppression of marginalised communities. [vii] Further evolution of human rights discourse needs to go beyond the limits of its original Western oriented formulation and to consider different interlocutors, such as civil society organisations. [viii] Another step towards curbing the existing eurocentrism could be harmonising European vision of human rights depicted through UDHR and ECHR and non-European vision.

Re-evaluating the colonial encounter is of utmost importance to understand the constraints and scope of the human rights discourse in the contemporary period. Claims about the universality of human rights plainly deny the reality of those whom it claims to represent , repudiating their histories and imposing another hegemonic one. The actual “universalization” of human rights is only possible if the intent with which such declarations and conventions were drafted are implemented ethically. Human rights should be looked at with a new and better lens of universalism, one that breaks the existing hierarchies in the international order and incorporates diverse cultures, races, minorities, etc. This new lens of universalism should ensure that non-western players also get equal representation in this discourse and the pioneering work of non-European activists and organizations is duly acknowledged on international platforms. The discourse on human rights should not be about the Eurocentric ideology of good v. evil or savages, victims, and saviors rather it should be about acknowledging forgotten, excluded and oppressed subjects, communities, histories.

[i] Charles R Beitz, Human Rights as a Common Concern, 95 AM. POLITICAL SCI. REV. 269 (2001). [ii] Makau Mutua, Savages, Victims and Saviours: The Metaphor of Human Rights, 42 HARV. INT'L L.J. 201, 211 (2001). [iii] Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). [iv] Ratna Kapur, Human Rights in the 21st Century: Taking a Walk on the Dark Side, 28 SYDNEY LAW REVIEW 665, 673 (2006). [v] Whatsapp Interview with Black Law student [Adekunle Abiona], Nigeria, November 1, 2020. [vi] Whatsapp Interview with Black Law student [name withheld], Nigeria, October 31, 2020. [vii] Savitri W. E. Goonesekere, Human Rights: A Eurocentric Ethic or a Legal Foundation for Freedom, Justice and Peace?, 7 Sri LANKA J. INT'l L. 81 (1995). [viii] Savitri W. E. Goonesekere, Human Rights: A Eurocentric Ethic or a Legal Foundation for Freedom, Justice and Peace?, 7 Sri LANKA J. INT'l L. 81 (1995).

Title Image Source: Max Planck Institut für ethnologische Forschung - Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

This article has been written by Chitransha Singh and Garima Dhankar. They are both students of O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.