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Are Human Rights Universal?

 There are some astonishing verses in the Qu’ran, like this one, which could be printed on Amnesty International’s literature: “Whoever kills a person not guilty of murder, it is as if he had killed all of humanity. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he had saved all of humanity” (Surah 5. 32).

Of course, you will tell me that these remarkable texts are contradicted by many others which call for the extermination of enemies, for acts of cruelty, for the degradation of women. But do we not find identical contradictions in Western Christian culture? In the Middle Ages, both Magna Carta (the charter imposed on King John of England in 1215, guaranteeing certain rights against arbitrary royal rule) and the Inquisition were instituted. Notions of religious freedom were unknown in the 16th and 17th Centuries, but it was precisely at this time that Anabaptists, Mennonites and Quakers emerged – who preached tolerance and non-violence. There was John Calvin, and there was Sébastien Castellion. There was slavery and colonisation, all too often based on deeply racist assumptions, and there was Bartolomé de Las Casas (the 16th Century Dominican who defended the Native Americans) and many missionaries who fought for indigenous peoples.

But arriving at a formulation of human rights as a universally-applicable principle took till the Enlightenment, an epoch which saw the publication of Habeas Corpus (1679), the Bill of Rights (1689), the United States Constitution (1787) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) wasn’t adopted until 1948, after the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes had cynically instituted State racism, and glorified violence and cruelty – and after their Western and Russian enemies had responded with the indiscriminate bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima, as well as by the deportation of entire populations – such is the stuff which should make Westerners blush.


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