Non-developed or third-world nations often reject the international system of human rights as being a reflection of global hegemony created by powerful nations of the western world. In contemporary times, concepts such as cultural relativism have emerged against the classic idea of human rights. However, if we deeply analyze the existing system, it seems to be a unique blend of different ideas of humanity around the globe. The cotemporary regime of international human rights law finds its origin in many different religious theologies from different civilization throughout the world. Hence, the opinion goes on to analyze the argument of Human Rights being a purely western concept in the light of the contribution of religious theologies in evolution and development of the jurisprudence of international human rights law.
The current human rights system is often understood as a western idea. This belief is not false because most of the ideas and concepts on which international human rights law is based, originated in western countries right after the world saw gravest violations of humanity in the second world war. However, the basic tenets of human rights find its origin, evolution and existence in various religious theologies which include various other religions along with western theologies. These religious theologies try to portray the idea of origin of humanity and as a result provide a divine spark to each individual entitling them with equal respect for one another. A lot of religious theologies answer many moral and ethical questions of justice and rights while discussing a way to exercise power and outlining duties that we owe towards each other as human beings.
Buddhism with its idea of Karuna and Ahimsa, contribute towards the idea of universal compassion as found in the current human rights regime. Four noble truths and the eightfold path further provides for the basic tenets of Human rights. These eightfold paths consisted right understanding, right speech, right alertness, right purpose, right livelihood, right conduct, right effort and right concentration. All these elements find their place in the current human rights system either directly or indirectly. For example, speech and livelihood are explicit human rights while alertness and concentration are elements of right to education and labor rights in general. Values such as inherent equality of all human beings, human freedom and non-violence form the core of this religion which is also an inherent part of modern human rights. Official diplomatic policy of India i.e., Panchsheel, is also based on Buddhist philosophy. In this way most of the Buddhist values provide a foundation for embracing human rights system.
The idea of ‘live and let live’ as propounded by Mahavir also supplements as the very basic purpose behind human rights. Further, the contributions of Charvakas in their challenge to the persisting human rights violations by the evils of Brahmanical Hindu religion cannot be ignored as they were probably the first ever atheist that spoke against the evil religious beliefs with the help of human reason. Similarly, Confucianism also laid emphasis on ideas which contribute to current human rights culture such as compassion, harmony, tolerance, humaneness and duty. Further, their elaboration of humane and ethical principles of administration can act as a measure of social and political reform by the government. Principle of compassion, benevolence and love (Jen) becomes a central principle behind this philosophy.
Idea of human rights also finds its origin in theological views of natural law school where natural law can be compared with the human rights as it exists today. Natural law according to this idea was the set of laws which had divine origin and hence everyone was bound by it including the king or the state itself. Saint Augustine, in his book ‘The confession’, has reflected upon this idea of law of nature. He divides law into two types i.e., Lex Naturalis and Lex Temporalis. The latter is a form of positive law which is temporary in nature while the former traces its existence form divinity. This law is also termed as eternal law because of its infallible and perfect nature. This strong belief is based on assumption that divine cannot commit any injustice.
These theological arguments were further supplemented by Saint Thomas Aquinas through his work ‘Summa Theologica’. He identified natural law as being based on some fundamental values and principles which are common to all human beings which is similar to the contemporary understanding of human rights as well. He laid down special emphasis on human reason while portraying justice as the primary force behind law. He argued that any law which lacks the concept of justice will not be able to acquire the force of law.
Islam also provides for many ideas that are reflected in modern human rights. The idea stated in Quran that all humanity is created from a single soul and hence no criterion other than piety is valid to divide people, affirm the principal of no discrimination and gender equality that is a basic human right in modern regime. Even though Muslim religion allows polygamy, but it still adheres to basic human ideals by fixing a particular number and further obligating complete equality towards all of them
After the above discussion, we can say that most of the religions around the globe discuss the issue of responsibility of a human towards another either directly or indirectly. Most of them further share a common interest in an attempt to redress dignity, integrity and worth of all persons by invoking the sacred duty that each person owes to one another. Religious theologies develop their own concepts, values and ideals of a common responsibility towards humanity and through this provide an inherent starting push for evolution of human rights. Therefore, the role of religion in evolution of human rights cannot be ignored. However, the fact that religion is no longer helpful in realization or implementation of such rights should also be considered. In contemporary times religion itself has become an instrument for massive human rights violations because of its monopolistic and expansionistic policies and essentially hierarchical and patriarchal nature.
In conclusion, we can say that the idea of human rights even though based on mostly western ideas, also encompasses basic tenets of many other non-western religions too. Even though the positive legal framework of human rights might be considered as somewhat a western concept, but the philosophical roots are based on a universal idea of basic rights inherent to human beings other than a few exceptions.
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About The Author
Khushal Gurjar is a post-graduate in Human Rights law from National Law University, Delhi.