No. 17




The universality of human rights, or, what to do with others? *

18 June 2008


RiTo No. 17, 2008

  • Lauri Mälksoo

    Associate Professor of International Law, University of Tartu

This essay draws on the author’s academic activities in the field of human rights law and scholarship. A major “ideological” controversy in the field is the question whether human rights are truly universal or culturally conditioned. Another, related question is what the human rights policy of the European states should look like.

The author is critical of blind spots and hypocrisy in Western human rights policies. In terms of the history of international law, there is a direct link between the collapse of the colonial rhetoric and the emergence of the international human rights discourse. As Jack Donnelly has argued, human rights have become today’s standard of civilization. Unfortunately, this standard has a number of problems, one of which is that other different cultures are not always treated with sufficient respect. Secondly, it is much easier to criticize others for their human rights record than to see deficiencies at home. Thirdly, Western human rights rhetoric has often been mixed with pragmatic considerations of trade and profit – it has been easier to criticize Zimbabwe and Myanmar than China or Russia.

The last part of the essay deals with the human rights situation in the Russian Federation, especially in the context of the European Court of Human Rights, which Russia joined in 1998. Although Russia’s accession to the Council of Europe and the Court was celebrated by most commentators as an opportunity to “gently civilize” Russia, the country that was meant to be “civilized” has already put up some resistance, e.g. in not ratifying Protocol 14, which is necessary for the reform of the Court. Secondly, Russian leaders have criticized certain judgments of the Strasbourg Court as “political” and even anti-Russian (e.g. the judgment related to Russia’s state responsibility for activities in Transdniestria). It is important that Strasbourg court would also in the future be able to maintain its high standards of human rights protection without political compromises – the opposite would mean the demise of the Court. The Russian leadership should accept that the Strasbourg court is not a us vs. them political competition stage but a forum for the implementation of human rights in all countries of the Council of Europe.

Notwithstanding a number of contradictions, silences, hypocrisy and weaknesses of the human rights discourse, the world needs a common normative language. Human rights as “language” can be extremely useful – but the utility of the language does not lie in mere existence but in its use. We should therefore strive towards a more fair and less hypocritical use of the “language” of human rights.

*The writing of this essay was supported by the Estonian Research Council Grant No. 7182.

Full article in Estonian