Reimagining human rights for the Global South

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

This past December marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It should have been a moment of celebration, heralding the advances that have been made following the end of World War II. But what rejoicing was possible in a moment when the ideals the landmark document was supposed to celebrate lay scattered under the debris in Kharkiv, Khan Yunis, and Khartoum?

The state of human rights globally prompts a sober reflection: the vision of universal human rights set important normative standards but was always dependent upon a Western-dominated liberal international order that rarely prioritized rights. Moreover, supporters emphasized civil and political rights—drawing on Western traditions of liberalism—while expressing indifference toward the economic and social rights that mattered most to the world’s majority. All rights were equal, but some rights were more equal than others.

Few of the conditions that existed when the UDHR came into existence remain today. For example, the United Nations now has 193 sovereign member states. It had only 60 in 1948, with large stretches of the Global South still under colonial rule, despite the UN Charter’s promise of rights for all. The West remains dominant, but its influence is receding while China and India stake their claims to being great powers and demand an alternative international order


An unequal human rights situation

The ambition to universalize rights has given way to a fragmentation of rights. The traditional champions of human rights in the West are confronting the global headwinds of a resurgence of the far right in their own societies—not seen since the pre-war period—with a diminishing domestic constituency for universal rights. Domestic challenges to long-held rights have surfaced, from abortion rights to the right to protest peacefully and a rampant rise in Islamophobia and growing antisemitism. European states pride themselves on welcoming Ukrainian refugees while striking deals with autocrats to repel or return refugees and migrants from other parts of the world. 

The steady progress in LGBTQI+ rights is being thwarted by new, vicious homophobic laws in Uganda, while transgender rights have become the new societal centerpiece of the West’s culture wars. Theocrats in Afghanistan and Iran are waging an all-out war on women’s rights, while majoritarian politicians are campaigning on the claim that minority rights present an existential threat to their countries. 

The key political freedoms that used to distinguish open societies from closed ones—freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly—have been casually dispensed with to crush expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian people. No part of the world can truly claim moral authority on human rights.

Critics of universal human rights claim that the project was always untenable—that it was foolish to even conceive of a common framework that guaranteed the same rights to everyone across diverse countries and cultures. On the contrary, yearning for truth, justice, and dignity is timeless and found everywhere. People may disagree on the meaning of these words, but it would be challenging to find people who are happy to have them denied.


A historical perspective on human rights

Universal human rights emerged following two key historical developments. One was the end of World War II when the need to promote human rights was glaringly apparent to those who witnessed the horrors of what happened in their absence. The other was decolonization. 

It is no accident that one of the principal authors of the UDHR was Hansa Mehta, from my country, India. She was also one of the authors of the Indian Constitution that was adopted the following year, in 1949. Mehta was a freedom fighter and a feminist leader. Her commitment to rights derived from her experience of colonialism and her fight for gender justice. Notably, her conception of rights was not derived from the West but in defiance of it, and it was Mehta who insisted that the very first article of the UDHR refer to “all human beings.” 

Human rights advocates failed to understand those three words in their full meaning. Beginning with the inception of the UDHR, there should have been a concerted push to build a global movement where everyone who was denied their rights could also be a person defending their rights: every person living in poverty, every child out of school, every woman denied equality. Each was a human rights defender and a constituent of the global rights movement. Instead, the politics of the Cold War led to the sidelining of economic and social rights, thereby preventing the building of a movement broad enough to accommodate the largest chunk of rights holders. 

The problem was exacerbated by the refusal of major actors, including the leading human rights organizations from the West, to acknowledge—let alone incorporate—rights rooted in local traditions while championing human rights in the Global South. For instance, a (successful) public campaign against the death penalty in a Buddhist-majority country which used the first precept of Buddhism—to abstain from taking a life—was met with much criticism from the keepers of the flame at a leading human rights organization, lest it be seen as an endorsement of Buddhism as religion in its entirety, or a deviation from a traditional, legalistic approach. 

Further, the human rights framework accepted economic and social inequality as a natural fact, one that could be mitigated but never eradicated. This system was the best that neoliberalism had to offer. In practice, it meant championing certain rights that were prized in the West as emblematic of its own values—for example, free speech and LGBTQI+ rights—but looking the other way when Global South majorities demanded the rights that mattered most to them, such as basic minimum wages. Instead of moving towards a world where all people are entitled to all rights, all of the time, we now have a world where there are only some rights, for some people, some of the time.

This contradiction has come into sharp relief: the very rights that were ignored or diminished at the outset have the greatest impact today. The climate emergency is revealing a world where the people who suffer most from it are often those least responsible. It is they who are losing their rights to subsistence: to food, to water, to housing, to an adequate standard of living—to lives of basic dignity. Can the human rights community continue to ignore the traditions of Indigenous communities across the Global South in crafting ways of living that accommodate nature far better than most societies have been able to do? 


Reimagining the future of human rights

Faced with these failures, there is a temptation to discard the human rights framework altogether, but that would be a mistake. What is needed instead is to rescue this normative framework by reimagining it—to pull it away from the overly legalistic form into which it has been cast and to relocate it within Indigenous traditions where the universal yearnings for truth, justice, and dignity find resonance, albeit in different forms.

This is not a call to particularize rights or to roll them back—it is to realize rights within a framework that does not depend on the dominance of a regional bloc, that is not yoked to a failed economic system, and that is not contingent on an abstract and rarely enforced legal framework. It is a call to nurture humanity’s core values in ways that find meaning in people’s daily lives.