In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • From the “Single Confused Page” to the “Decalogue for Six Billion Persons”: The Roots of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the French Revolution
  • Stephen P. Marks (bio)


I. Introduction

In the half century since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1 the debate over its origins and contemporary relevance to culturally diverse societies has not abated. In this context, the historical and philosophical significance of the French Declarations of Human Rights 2 for the UDHR offers a rich terrain for reflection. [End Page 459]

The proclamation of human rights during the French Revolution—from which most historians date the beginning of the modern era—has had a major impact on the form and content of the UDHR proclaimed 160 years later, and subsequently on the current codex of internationally recognized human rights. This impact is of more than mere rhetorical interest. Since the expansion of the international community of states and the decline of European hegemony (both economically and ideologically), it has become commonplace to challenge human rights as “Western” and “Eurocentric.” A recurring debate surrounds the “universality” of human rights characterized by deeply entrenched sides taken by a few extreme cultural relativists and equally extreme universalist idealists, along with a majority of scholars holding many explicit and implicit intermediate positions. 3 The debate [End Page 460] remains unsettled by the compromise language of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (Vienna Declaration) 4 forty-five years later, which states:

All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. 5

In 1997, the issue resurfaced in the news when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, speaking at the annual forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said that “a review should be carried out on the [Universal] Declaration [of Human Rights], which was formulated by the superpowers which did not understand the needs of poor countries.” 6 Commenting on the negative reactions from the United States and the European Union, Mahathir said, “These people would rather see people starve than allow for a stable government. They would rather have their government chasing demonstrators in the street . . . there are other things in human rights other than mere individual freedom.” 7 The Prime Minister further explained that

[t]he west believes individuals are supreme irrespective of what happens to the majority . . . The people cannot do business, cannot work because of the so-called expression of the freedom of individuals. . . . In a country like ours where [End Page 461] stability is important to provide a good life to our people, we consider the good life of people as the right of the people. 8

The question of “Asian values” has its counterpart in Africa and Latin America, where frustration with the arrogance and avarice of Western military and economic domination engender suspicion and hostility towards the human rights agenda of Western political elites and NGOs. It is also true, however, that human rights provide the most valid standard by which governments may be held accountable with their legitimacy gauged by people who suffer from oppression and repression. Indian law professor and leading social thinker Upendra Baxi, argued eloquently that

the measuring rod of illegitimacy and illegality of practices of power was provided by the sovereign states themselves by the enunciation of human rights standards since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without the Declaration and its progeny of rights declarations, there would have been no objective way of measuring and combating state-caused human deprivation and suffering. 9

This prolific, creative exemplar of the scholar engagé, and occasionally and rightfully enragé, lucidly enumerates ten “commonsense critiques of [the] contemporary human rights movement,” 10 including three that go to the heart of the issue addressed here:

  1. 1. human rights proclamations tend to ignore cultural pluralism (the well-worn theme...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 459-514
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.