What are “Universal Human Rights”?

The definition of universal human rights emerges from linear thinking trajectories encapsulating neocolonial histories of mass genocide, colonialism & imperialism, assimilation, and slave trades. The two contexts I will touch upon to exhibit the universal hegemony of human rights are in regards to Afro-Latino communities, as well as Hindu communities in India.

In order to understand this term, we must understand where it emerges from – specifically the forces that benefit and sustain its implementation locally and globally.

Where Do “Universal” Human Rights Emerge From?

“My critique of human rights is intended to be productive and to articulate a different cosmology within which to understand the place of human rights in our contemporary world. The story of human rights cannot be told primarily through the dichotomies of good versus evil, heroes versus villains, winners and losers.

Indeed, human rights can be an inhospitable terrain…that at times led them straight back into the arms  of the ‘Great White Saviour’. The battle to recapture the progressive and transformative terrain of human rights cannot be simply ‘won’, but the centering of excluded subjects, excluded zones and excluded histories can bring the project back to a space of greater optimism and lesser despair.” (Kapur, 2006)

Within the geopolitical histories of India, there has been an implicit assumption that women are victims and objects in need of aid and “rescuing” from the savagery of their male counterparts. Read about the distortions of “Third World Women” here. 

This was exemplified in Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, which positioned Hindu males as dangerous and backwards towards “their women” – this was used as a tool to justify British Colonialism and Imperialism in 1927 (Kapur, 2006).

Similarly, in Latin American history, the impact of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is not reflected in human rights discourse, even when the effects of these geopolitical histories are still exhibited systematically in the racial and gender-based treatment of Afro-Latino Women (Falcon, 2016).

Universal discourses do not look at local contexts of freedom. Instead, they are based upon European histories and subsequent development and industrialization. However, an important critique of the United Nations, and other major global agencies is: if universal contentions do not address these political histories, how can they be critical in ensuring human rights can truly be implemented and practiced in different geospatial contexts?

While universal hegemony of human rights, if critically examined, can be a healthy part of discourse, it should not be the singular one. Instead, we need to combine an analysis of the different “lived racial realities” (Falcon, 2016) that influence ones perspective and praxis to effectively participate in exercising agency.

We need to analyze how local discourses and geospatial differences influence our ability to liberate, and be liberated.

Universal human rights forces us to question where these rights come from, and who gets to truly exercise them. This discourse assumes we share the same histories and that our pasts will enable the same future. This is Eurocentric thinking.

Our geopolitical pasts proceed to force us to specific planes that dictate our ability to exercise our rights. If those histories are disregarded in universal discourse, how can we ensure human rights can be implemented for people who are not truly liberated from their pasts? For people who stand on different planes? For people who may view human rights in an entirely different context?

Ratna Kapur eloquently illustrates that universalism is “the process of recuperating the traumatized, alienated subjects of the past into the liberal democratic state through the discourse of human rights represents the metamorphosis of a racist state into one that is caring and compassionate. Human rights become a site for reconciling moments of rupture and exclusion, and bringing the past into sync with the norms and values of liberalism, rather than bringing about a deeper interrogation of those norms and values.”

We need to re-imagine what universal human rights mean, and who “universal” actually includes.


Falcón, Sylvanna M. “The Particularism of Human Rights for Latin American Women of African Descent.” Feminist Formations 28.1 (2016): 190-204.

Kapur, Ratna. “Human rights in the 21st century: Take a walk on the dark side.” Sydney L. Rev. 28 (2006): 665.

Sen, A. 2004. “Elements of a Theory of Human Rights,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 32(4): 315-56


2 thoughts on “What are “Universal Human Rights”?”

  1. Hi! Do the references mentioned above go into detail as far as examples of what “human rights” might look like according to the people excluded from its analysis? Or is it more, “we need to look at human rights from other perspectives”. Thank you for your direction!

    1. Kanishka Sikri

      Sen, A. 2004. “Elements of a Theory of Human Rights,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 32(4): 315-56 is an amazing reference for future perceptions of human rights. Falcon and Kapur are talking more so about unpacking common perceptions, whereas Sen is conceptualizing a new future.

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