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Universality Of Human Rights

universality of human rights

Session Report
Rahul Soni

IMPRI Centre for Human Dignity and Development, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, conducted Law and Public Policy Youth Fellowship – Cohort 2.0 Winter’23 on the theme: Promoting Human Rights and Ending Gender-Based Violence. The session was held on the Occasion of Human Rights Day. December 10th, 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of one of the world’s most groundbreaking global pledges: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The session was marked by special lecture by Dr. Vahida Nainar, Independent Researcher, Gender & Human Rights Consultant.

The session led by Dr. Vahida Nainar delved into the complex yet crucial aspect of human rights: Universality. Exploring the foundational pillars and challenges of universality in the context of human rights, the discourse navigated through philosophical underpinnings, global challenges, and implications of this concept.

Why human rights are universal?

The feature of universality in human rights remains pivotal, grounded in the belief that all individuals, irrespective of their backgrounds, possess inherent dignity and are entitled to certain fundamental rights. Dr. Nainar emphasized that human rights, being fundamental and indivisible, are an essential part of human existence, serving as a shield against injustices experienced collectively by humanity.

The philosophical foundation of universality rests on the inherent dignity of humans, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) crystallizing after the tumultuous aftermath of world wars and widespread injustices. Dr. Nainar highlighted how violations of human rights directly equate to breaches in this inherent dignity, emphasizing the moral basis of the human rights regime.

Challenges to universality of human rights

However, challenges to universality persist. The discussion unveiled these hurdles, including the notion that human rights are universal in theory but not always in practice. Instances exist where human rights violations occur under the pretext of national security, creating a dichotomy between state interests and individual rights.

Moreover, arguments abound that portray human rights as a luxury for developing countries, contending that socio-economic development must precede the realization of human rights. Cultural relativism also poses a challenge, where cultural or religious values are considered superior, potentially conflicting with the universality of human rights.

Dr. Nainar addressed misconceptions about human rights being an imperial imposition by clarifying that the drafting committee of key human rights documents had fair representation from diverse regions worldwide. Another challenge pointed out was the perception that human rights standards apply only to the state and not to society at large.

Implications of the challenges to universality in human rights

  • Acceptance of Inequality as Justifiable:

In certain societies, deeply ingrained social hierarchies, such as caste systems, are justified as cultural norms. Despite being in violation of human rights principles, these hierarchies persist, and the discriminatory practices associated with them are accepted and perpetuated. For instance, India’s caste system historically justified and institutionalized discrimination against individuals from lower castes.

  • Sacrificing Human Rights for Perceived Greater Good:

The notion that economic development takes precedence over human rights is observed in several contexts. Governments may prioritize economic progress and industrial growth, often at the expense of labor rights or environmental protections. This trade-off, sacrificing certain human rights for economic development, is particularly evident in countries where industrial growth is deemed essential for progress.

  • Prioritizing Cultural or Religious Values Over Inherent Rights:

Some societies prioritize cultural or religious values over universally recognized human rights. Practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) in certain African communities or restrictions on freedom of expression in some conservative societies are justified based on cultural or religious beliefs. For instance, limitations on women’s rights in the name of preserving cultural traditions showcase the conflict between these values and fundamental human rights.

  • Concession That Rights Are Not Inherently Ingrained in All Humans:

Some societies, particularly in non-Western countries, contend that certain rights are not universally applicable to all individuals. This concession is seen in arguments that human rights are a Western construct incompatible with local customs and values. For example, in some Asian or African countries, arguments against LGBTQ+ rights are made, suggesting that these rights contradict cultural or religious norms, thus challenging their universality.

These implications underscore the complex dynamics where cultural, social, and historical contexts intersect with the concept of universal human rights. They demonstrate how diverse interpretations and applications of human rights principles can either promote or hinder their universality, often revealing inherent tensions between cultural relativism and the universality of fundamental human rights.

Examining universality in the Indian context, Dr. Nainar highlighted that while the constitution of India explicitly enshrines these rights, reality often falls short. Instances of caste-based and gender-based discrimination persist, exemplified by the continued existence of institutions like Khaap Panchayats and Sharia law.


The session concluded with the doubt sessions basically emphasizing on the premise that the success of universality in human rights hinges on appealing to human morality. The need to bridge the gap between theoretical ideals and real-world practice is paramount for achieving true universality in safeguarding human dignity and rights.

In essence, Dr. Vahida Nainar’s session underscored the intricate challenges and critical significance of universality within the framework of human rights, compelling attendees to contemplate the ethical imperative of upholding these rights universally.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Acknowledgment: Rahul Soni is a research Intern at IMPRI.

Read more session reports:

Human Rights & LGBTQIA+ Community in India

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IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.


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