The Western World has colonized the definition of human rights. It has based human rights on Western ethical frameworks that are largely individualistic “with limited applicability” [1] and, through various political and economical means, has pushed these definitions onto the rest of the world. To reject these definitions isn’t necessarily to reject that humanity should be protected – rather it is to reject western definitions of a right that belongs to us all.

To define a central part of the human experience for everyone else is a limit to true freedom. The goal to protect humanity can be achieved in various ways. One might ask why isn’t the right not to be poor a universally held and practiced human right? Why is income inequality not a major point of concern in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Although the UDHR recognizes “the equal and inalienable rights” of all humans [2], to be viewed the same under the eyes of the law does not, by itself, necessarily guarantee equality in society. Legislation may prescribe equal rights however it doesn’t always equate to equal opportunity.

Human Rights are ultimately meant to protect humanity through the protection of individual rights – however there isn’t just one school of thought meant to address this task. The concept and role of the individual and self differs across the wide array of human expression. In the West the concept of the self is based on individualistic ideas, and in some societies, such as those of the African continent, the concept of the self is defined in the context of the whole – the self being a part, replica and representative of the whole.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted 70 years ago this day, only three African nations were independent from European powers. The ongoing immigrant crises in the Central American migrant caravans making their way towards the United States of America and the economic refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea to find more opportunities for work in Europe can be largely deemed as Human Rights crises whose protection under human rights is not upheld. Some of the wars and political upheavals that have occurred due to the influence and intervention of Western powers can be seen by some as violations to humanity. It is not apparent human rights mean anything unless their interpretation and application are being used as an extension of Western hegemony.

It may be the case that stronger protections for humanity may be possible if the framework for human rights were based on collectivist goals. The protection of humanity might be strengthened if, as in the spirit of Ubuntu ( literally meaning “how to be human”), the development of one’s humanity was deeply tied to the development of the humanity in others. The emphasis on communal good does not need to threaten the well-being of an individual. Ubuntu asserts the communal nature of the indvidual’s role in society, but it equally asserts that society itself has an unconditional responsibility and duty to the human. This is captured in the Zulu proverb Umuntu akalahlwa [3] “no one is beyond redemption”. If an individual fails to develop in personhood society has also failed in its responsibility in creating the necessary environment to develop one’s personhood.

When individual rights are limited to define an individual merely as the self it limits other understandings of what it means to be a human. These understandings may provide more fulfilling experiences of being human. A fractal definition, for example, of the human and a human’s responsibility to society might be useful in representing this complexity and a more humane society. To impose globally the western defined notions of what the human experience ought to be should be itself a violation to the right of humanity.

  1. Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab, “Human Rights: A Western Construct with Limited Applicability,” in Human Rights: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives, ed. Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab (New York: Praeger, 1979), 1-1 8.
  2. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”
  3. Mluleki Mnyaka & Mokgethi Motlhabi (2005) The African Concept of Ubuntu/Botho and its Socio-Moral Significance, Black Theology, 3:2, 215-237, DOI: 10.1558/blth.