Human rights controversies

Human rights are controversial. Since the UDHR many human rights treaties have been adopted, but not all countries have signed them. Even in countries that have signed, there is disagreement about human rights. Sometimes, disagreement spills over into violence.

Questions to ask yourself

We previously discussed the values of journalism. One of the most important values of journalism is a commitment to minimize harm.

To minimize the potential for unintended harm, you will need to be able to predict how people may react to your story. This requires an understanding of your audience’s culture and values.

  • What is their level of awareness about human rights?
  • Do people agree or disagree with the idea of human rights?
  • Are there any issues that are especially controversial?

In order to make good news judgements, you will also need to think critically about your own values and beliefs. Some of the important questions to ask yourself when assessing a possible story include:

  • What is my own relationship to the issue?
  • To what extent am I driven by my own interests?
  • What values/beliefs/connections do I have that may be influencing me?

Controversial issues

Here we identify some of the controversies and disagreements about human rights that you may encounter in your work.

Whose universe?

Can human rights be universal in a world with so many different identities, cultures and traditions? This question is behind many human rights controversies.

Broadly, there are two positions:

  • "Universalists" believe that the same human rights should apply to everyone, regardless of their culture or background.
  • “Cultural relativists ” believe human rights should take account of cultural differences.

Cultural relativists argue that human rights were developed by Western countries and are based on Western morality. They should therefore not be imposed on non-Western societies that have different histories, cultures and levels of development.

In response, universalists argue that ideals like liberty and security belong to all of us. They are critical of cultural relativist arguments, which they see as an attempt to justify oppression of minorities or defend harmful cultural practices.

Where do you stand?

Here are some examples where universalists and cultural relativists have clashed. What do you think?

  1. In 2010, Europe and the US put pressure on Malawi to free jailed homosexuals. This sparked widespread anger in Africa, where some people believe homosexuality is not part of African culture and so should be outlawed.
  2. Female genital mutilation (FGM) occurs in different cultures in Africa, Asia and South America. Arguments for FGM are sometimes religious, sometimes cultural. But FGM is considered a violation of women's and girl's rights by much of the international community and is outlawed in some countries.
  3. In parts of the Muslim world where Shariah law is practiced, clashes with the international human rights movement are frequent. For example, in late 2000, a 13- or 14-year-old unmarried girl in Zamfara state in northern Nigeria was accused of having sexual relations. Zamfara had adopted a very strict interpretation of Shariah and the girl was sentenced to be flogged. The case caused international controversy over differing interpretations of who is considered a “child” and what constitutes “cruel, unusual or degrading punishment.”
  4. Gender equality is controversial. In many parts of the world girls do not have the same access to education as boys.
  5. In some Maasai communities in Kenya and Tanzania, parents do not want to send their children to school, although primary schooling is compulsory in both places. Some Maasai believe boys should be herding cattle and girls should be helping in the house, and that this is sufficient education for them. Is this a violation of the child’s right to education?
  6. Should people living with disability have the same rights as everyone else? Many families and communities appear to disagree, and people living with disability – especially mental disability – are hidden away and stigmatized.
  7. In some societies, women may not inherit or own property. Is this discrimination and a violation of women’s rights? Or is it a legitimate and acceptable part of those societies’ way of life?
  8. Imposing human rights under the banner of universalism is often labelled “imperialist.” More particularly, it is labelled “American imperialism” or “Western imperialism.” What do you think?

Are all rights really equal?

In spite of attempts to assert the equality of rights, there are disagreements about which rights take priority.

How should a government decide to allocate resources? Should more resources go to health, which is a human right, or to education, which is also a human right?

Most countries have privacy laws which protect individuals from invasion of their privacy by government, business and other institutions. But the question of which takes precedence – privacy, or the right to know – remains controversial and is the subject of numerous court cases.

Which is more important? The public’s right to information or the individual’s right to privacy?

Are there enough rights to protect everyone?

Some people say there are not. What do you think about the following examples?

Some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations say there should be a separate treaty asserting a right to sexuality. It would recognize the LGBT community as different, ensure they had equal rights with everyone else, including the right to marriage, and protect LGBT communities from abuse.

Some HIV/AIDS organizations say there should be a special treaty to promote and protect the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS. Activists argue that a special treaty is necessary because of the extent and depth of the HIV/AIDS epidemic; the special nature of the illness and treatment needs of sufferers; the devastating impact on families and the role of discrimination and stigma in spreading AIDS

Proponents of the anti-abortion, “pro-life” movement believe in the rights of the unborn fetus. “Pro-choice” supporters argue that the rights of the mother to choose whether to have a child are more important.

Which takes precedence? International human rights law or national law?

Once a treaty has been signed, international human rights laws take precedence over domestic law, and individuals have access to a higher authority if they feel they have been wronged. This often causes controversy at the national level and can cause problems with enforcement of verdicts.