There has been a great deal of debate in the recent past about decolonising the curriculum in universities around the globe and a call for the use of more inclusive and diverse sources for teaching. International human rights law literature and United Nations human rights reports and publications are replete with assertions that human rights are universal. Yet how ‘universal’ are these human rights? What is the basis of the assertion of the universality of human rights? Are they universal because the Universal Declaration says so; or because the Declaration and the core UN human rights treaties have received near-universal acceptance? Do they emanate from all major civilisations or religions of the world to qualify as universal? And if so, what contributions have the Eastern civilisations made to the universality of human rights? These are the questions that need to be answered with reference to the values of the major civilisations of the world.

The values of Western civilisations and their contribution to the development of human rights, the rule of law and democracy have been asserted in a wide range of literature. In contrast, few studies have been conducted on the values of Eastern civilisations and their contribution to the development of human rights in the wider sense of the term. Western scholars are not usually familiar with the vast body of scholarship in Eastern civilisations; nor do they go far back in history to understand and appreciate the contribution of Eastern civilisations. This intellectual gap renders the work of such scholars limited in scope.

A quest is underway for universal values, which obviously will include an examination of the values of Eastern civilisations – mainly those informed by Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic scriptures and practices. The attempt is to enhance the understanding of the values of Eastern civilisations, and in particular those Eastern values which have informed the development of human rights in different civilisations and provide further impetus to recognise the universality of human rights drawn from different civilisations.

There is no universal consensus on an absolute, binding definition of ‘human rights’, albeit those rights and freedoms that are included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the other nine core UN human rights treaties that have received near-universal acceptance of states have generally been relied upon to define ‘human rights’. The concept of ‘human rights’ is organic and will continue to evolve with the evolution of society, which entails the recognition and addition of new rights, as well as new or expanded definitions of existing rights. The definition of ‘human rights’ varies from one society to another, and from secular societies to religious societies. What was not a human right in a particular society yesterday may become a right today, and what is not a right today may well become a right tomorrow as society advances.

When discussing human rights, one should not only refer to human rights in the modern sense of the term – that is, the human rights developed mainly after the establishment of the United Nations and within the framework of Western political thought. Rather, one should consider human rights in a wider sense and in a much earlier historical context. This would encourage human rights scholars to examine the norms underpinning Eastern philosophies to assess the extent to which the ancient Eastern civilisations already had human rights values embedded in them and explore the expression of values in the scriptures and practices of the Eastern philosophies, assessing their influence on the contemporary understanding of human rights.

Whether human rights have their origins in Western civilisation alone or in other civilisations too depends on how far back in history one goes. At their peak, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic civilisations seem to have influenced the thinkers, philosophers and religious leaders of both the East and the West. The Eastern belief systems seem to have continued to influence the thinkers and philosophers of East and West until the onset of the colonial period, during which the philosophy of the colonial masters prevailed over those of the colonies.

There is a fear that the perceived economic and corresponding potential political decline of the West will have a detrimental impact on the international human rights agenda in general and the UN agenda in particular. The apprehension is that a loss of economic power by Western countries may prompt a refocus of the priorities of the Western world with a corresponding move away from the global promotion and protection of human rights. Democracy may have its origins in Western political thought, but it is now very much a global concept which has been enriched by similar concepts found in other civilisations, and by the practices in states of different regions, civilisations and faiths. Except for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most other major international human rights treaties were adopted by the UN General Assembly after developing countries gained a numerical majority in the Assembly.

Most of the developing countries signed the 1966 Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Many other subsequent ‘hard law’ and ‘soft law’ instruments – such as those relating to the rights of self-determination, minority rights, equality, economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development, which constitute the bulk of the human rights package – have been adopted either with the enthusiastic participation or actually at the behest of developing countries.

States may differ in their views on any given international matter at any given point in time; but all states have accepted the universality of human rights. Whenever they had a choice, the people in Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, South Korea, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines have opted for the values embodied in democracy, the rule of law and human rights; just as the people of Western Europe, North America, Latin American and Africa have also done.

When the Asian and African countries gained independence, they embraced Western-style democracy. Although Mahatma Gandhi led the Indian independence against the British relying on the principle of non-violence drawn from the Hindu and Buddhist religious teachings, when it came to establish a system of government for independent India he, along with Pandit Nehru, adopted the Western style democracy and a British system of government. Perhaps Gandhi saw in Western democracy the tenets of Hindu-Buddhist ideas of good governance and thus had no difficulty in embracing a more advanced Western system of democratic governance. After all, many of the principles that lay behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 can be found in Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

Even when Mohamed Ali Jinnah established a new state, Pakistan, on the strength of Islam, he decided to embrace the British system of governance rather than founding a new system based on Islamic values. For instance, he stated in his Presidential address to the first constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 September 1947:

‘You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed-that has nothing to do with the business of the state. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in [a] religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense of the State.’

He, too, must have thought the same way as Gandhi and Nehru did when adopting Western models of democracy and human rights. He stated in a speech in London in 1946 that ‘democracy is in the blood of Musalmans who look upon complete equality of manhood, Musalmans believe in fraternity, equality and liberty’ (speech of Jinnah at Kingsway Hall, London, 13 December 1946).

These leaders did not like the Western colonial rule of their mother countries but did like how Western countries governed themselves at home. That is why, for the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Americans and the leaders and peoples of many other Commonwealth countries, it was a case of ‘Down with the British Empire; long live the values of the British Empire!’ Thus, it would be untrue to state that the international law of human rights today is restricted to being a Western agenda or runs counter to Asian or African values. If power is shifting to the East, it will shift not only to China, but also to established democracies such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nepal, South Korea and the Philippines where the values of democracy and human rights run deep. Therefore, the shift in power to the East is unlikely to have a detrimental impact on the UN human rights agenda and the universality of human rights. 

Drawing on personal experience, The Workings of Human Rights, Law and Justice: a Journey from Nepal to Nobel Nominee by Surya P Subedi QC (Routledge: 2022) provides insights into the workings of international law and human rights from a global perspective that transcends the traditional divide between the West and the East, and the Global South and Global North. The work follows the author’s remarkable journey from a simple village in Nepal to international jurist and Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.