HART Prize for Human Rights 2018| ‘Human rights can sometimes be dismissed as a Western concept’

March 20th, 2018

HART Prize for Human Rights 2018| ‘Human rights can sometimes be dismissed as a Western concept’

With the most number of entries we’ve ever received, the competition was even harder with such exceptional submissions that demonstrated inspiring passion for Human Rights advocacy.

Jing Min Tan, 19, won 3rd place in our HART Prize for Human Rights Senior Essay Category 2018 with her essay titled:

Human rights can sometimes be dismissed as a Western concept. Using one or more of the countries HART works with, explain why this view could occur and suggest how you would go about promoting ownership of human rights.

In today’s postmodern world, suspicion of overarching conceptual frameworks comes easily. Just as human rights rhetoric has heightened to such levels of sacrosanctity that it is “almost a form of religion”,[1] detractors and transgressors criticise the doctrine as a Western imposition of ideals. At its most extreme, human rights advocates elevate a liberal democracy to the gold standard of society.[2] This essay seeks to understand the roots and manifestation of that fallacy, grounding its exploration with examples from Nigeria and Sudan, and suggests steps we can take towards a paradigm shift.


Human rights as Western imperialism

Western theoretical traditions

The foundation of human rights can arguably be found in Western philosophical and theological thought. Natural law was the idea that God calibrated an objective moral compass by which humans could guide their behaviour.[3] Political theorists in the 16th century such as Kant, Locke and Burke developed this concept into a system of ‘natural’ rights to make sense of societal structures and the State. This manifested in major political treatises such as the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen and the American Declaration of Independence, and so entrenched such ideals within Western political foundation.

Human rights are founded on the basis that there are ‘inalienable’ and ‘sacred’ rights innate to all human beings.[4]  This is incongruent with the value systems of communal cultures, found especially in Africa. The primary units of society are tribes, castes, villages or bloodlines instead of the individual;[5] thus in countries like Nigeria and Sudan, female circumcision is viewed both as a religious and community obligation – an integral quality to a woman’s traditional role within her community.[6] Consequently, some states argue that human rights threaten their own, non-Western culture. In Sudan, the legal system is based on Islamic Sharia law, which allows for punishment by stoning for criminal offences. In Nigeria, three women were convicted for engaging in extra-marital affairs contrary to Sharia law, despite the country having ratified numerous human rights treaties.[7] Evidently, protection of human rights requires more than mere diplomatic gestures at the government level.

The West has lost its moral authority

In his lecture “The Weaponisation of Human Rights”, Chase Madar argued that international human rights law has been manipulated and overused to justify numerous foreign military interventions. This has given way to resentment from African and Middle Eastern countries like Nigeria, who accuse Western powers of “hypocrisy” when they receive public criticism on human rights abuses.[8] This sentiment trickles down to people on the ground, and fuels anti-Western sentiments. Case in point is Islamist group Boko Haram, literally translated to “Western education is forbidden”,[9] which kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from a school for slavery and forced marriage. Respect for human rights has also taken a nosedive in mainstream attitudes, with a new law passed in 2013 that prohibits same sex marriage, which has been used to engage in homophobic violence.[10]

Even foreign aid schemes that demand spending on “rule of law” projects and the like have proved to be ineffective, since these initiatives do not change the mind-sets of government officials and law enforcers who regard such projects as unimportant. Economic reform requires consent of the public,[11] which oftentimes is overlooked in ambitious developmental aid schemes that graft the architects’ Western understanding of society onto their target country.

This problem has knock-on effects on the cause for human rights. Local human rights organisations and activists are attacked with accusations of collaborating with foreign governments and groups, and face harassment from both their local government and people.[12] During the campaign against a Nigerian ruling to stone a woman named Amina Lawal to death in 2002, some officials became even more bent on carrying out the sentence after receiving protest letters with Western postage.[13]

 The current top-down model of implementation is clearly unsatisfactory, but human rights should not be regarded as a lost cause in these less-developed countries with differing traditions.


The way forward

A cross-cultural approach

The doctrine of human rights, at its heart, is simply about wellbeing. It is about avoiding objective harm.[14] This measuring stick suspends the moral neutrality of cultural relativity,[15] drawing a clearer line between what is acceptable and what is not. It is necessary to engage with emerging powers such as Nigeria to galvanise more robust advocacy for human rights. In Sudan, after strong feminist campaigns and political pressure, the Islamic law, which gave husbands a right to enforce “house obedience” by compelling fleeing wives to return home, was abolished.[16] A cross-cultural approach is needed, where anthropologists, activists, leaders from the Western world and lesser-developed countries engage in dialogue to develop an approach to sensitive cultural practices that infringe human rights.

Western powers need to take a backseat in engaging with emerging powers on human rights issues.[17] Signing treaties has largely been ineffectual, since their terms are often unattainable and are not always complemented with practical support for complying with them.[18] Their oft-complex structure and diction is a reminder of their inextricable association with Western-dominated international organisations, such as the United Nations. This only serves to alienate less-developed countries, which perceive such esotericism as intellectual imperialism,[19] perpetuating deeply entrenched power structures that will never view them as equals.

Instead, what could be done is for Western powers to provide technical, executive and knowledge-based support to local partner organisations without drawing attention to itself, to avoid the stigma of “Western imposition”. For example, in 2015 Nigeria banned female circumcision, yet there remains widespread prevalence of the practice because there is no central body to organise enforcement of the law.[20] Western governments could step in to plug this critical gap, by providing funding.

Empowering emerging powers to be human rights advocates

Nigeria currently sits on the UN Human Rights Council[21] and has made notable improvements in civil liberties under the most current constitution of 1999. Though its current state is far from ideal, the West could do more to integrate the country and similar emerging powers into the global human rights campaign. Recognising them as legitimate actors on the global playing field is the first major step towards encouraging proactive involvement in human rights issues.

Regional institutions such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights[22] could be given greater focus, indicating that they can play an important role in the human rights agenda. These bodies need to strongly oppose human rights violations elsewhere in the region, showing that human rights concerns are universal and not merely a Western agenda.

There also needs to be sustained effort at the grassroots level to educate people on the principles underpinning human rights: equality, justice, peace, respect for human dignity and so on. This can be done in schools, villages, community centres and beyond, through partnerships between local universities and foreign bodies, and allowing local activists take the lead.



Promoting human rights can no longer be a “white man’s burden”. To make real progress, less-developed and oft-intransigent countries must also recognise it as their problem. Rather than issuing criticism and projecting lofty ideals from an ivory tower, it is necessary for Western powers to tone down their hyper-moralised rhetoric and recognise that justice in another country may not always look the same as at home.





Heard, Andrew. “Intrduction.” Human Rights: Chimeras in Sheep’s Clothing. 1997. http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/417/util.html. Accessed 23 February, 2018.

Ofoegbu, Johnson U. “THE PLACE OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN NIGERIA’S DEMOCRACY.” 2013. A New Journal of African Studies Vol. 10.

Sundaramoorthy, Laksshini. “Is the idea of human rights a universal concept?” Merici, Vol. 2 (2016).

 Sinha, S. Prakash. “Human Rights: A Non-Western Viewpoint.” ARSP: Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie / Archives for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, Vol. 67, No. 1 (1981).

Wright, Clancy. “Western Human Rights in a Diverse World: Cultural Suppression or Relativism?” 2014. http://www.e-ir.info/2014/04/25/western-human-rights-in-a-diverse-world-cultural-suppression-or-relativism/. Accessed 25 February 2018.

Egede, Edwin. “Bringing Human Rights Home: An Examination of the Domestication of Human Rights Treaties in Nigeria.” Journal of African Law, Vol. 51.

Keshi, Joe. “America-Nigeria troubled relations.” Vanguard News. https://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/10/america-nigeria-troubled-relations/. Accessed 25 February 2018.

“Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist group?” BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13809501. Accessed 25 February 2018.

“Nigeria: Harsh Law’s Severe Impact on LGBT Community.” Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/20/nigeria-harsh-laws-severe-impact-lgbt-community. Accessed 25 February 2018.

Terman, Rochelle. “Backlash: The unintended consequences to human rights intervention.” Open Democracy. https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/rochelle-terman/backlash-unintended-consequences-of-western-human-rights-intervention. Accessed 25 February 2018.

Fluehr-Lobban Carolyn. “CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS.” AnthroNotes, Smithsonian Institution. https://anthropology.si.edu/outreach/anthnote/Winter98/anthnote.html. Accessed 25 February 2018.

Posner, Eric. “The case against human rights.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights. Accessed 23 February 2018.

Roth, Kenneth and Peggy Hicks. “Encouraging stronger engagement by emerging powers on human rights.” Open Democracy. https://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/kenneth-roth-peggy-hicks/encouraging-stronger-engagement-by-emerging-powers-on-huma. Accessed 25 February 2018.

Daly, Claire and Mary Carson. “Nigeria: 20 million women and girls have undergone FGM.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/11/fgm-nigeria-20-million-women-and-girls-undergone-female-genital-mutilation. Accessed 25 February 2018.

“Nigeria: Events of 2017.” Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/nigeria. Accessed 25 February 2018.


[1] Andrew Heard, “Intrduction,” Human Rights: Chimeras in Sheep’s Clothing (1997) http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/417/util.html (accessed 23 February, 2018).

[2] Johnson U. Ofoegbu, “THE PLACE OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN NIGERIA’S DEMOCRACY,” (2013) A New Journal of African Studies Vol. 10.

[3] Heard, “Introduction”.

[4] Laksshini Sundaramoorthy, “Is the idea of human rights a universal concept?” Merici, Vol. 2 (2016), 24.

[5] S. Prakash Sinha, “Human Rights: A Non-Western Viewpoint,” ARSP: Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie / Archives for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, Vol. 67, No. 1 (1981), 85.

[6] Clancy Wright, “Western Human Rights in a Diverse World: Cultural Suppression or Relativism?” (2014) http://www.e-ir.info/2014/04/25/western-human-rights-in-a-diverse-world-cultural-suppression-or-relativism/ (accessed 25 February 2018).

[7] Edwin Egede, “Bringing Human Rights Home: An Examination of the Domestication of Human Rights Treaties in Nigeria,” Journal of African Law, Vol. 51, 283.

[8] Joe Keshi, “America-Nigeria troubled relations,” Vanguard News, https://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/10/america-nigeria-troubled-relations/ (accessed 25 February 2018).

[9] “Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist group?” BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13809501 (accessed 25 February 2018).

[10] “Nigeria: Harsh Law’s Severe Impact on LGBT Community,” Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/20/nigeria-harsh-laws-severe-impact-lgbt-community (accessed 25 February 2018).

[11] Posner, “The case against human rights”.

[12] Rochelle Terman, “Backlash: The unintended consequences to human rights intervention,” Open Democracy, https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/rochelle-terman/backlash-unintended-consequences-of-western-human-rights-intervention (accessed 25 February 2018).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, “CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS,” AnthroNotes, Smithsonian Institution, https://anthropology.si.edu/outreach/anthnote/Winter98/anthnote.html (accessed 25 February 2018).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Terman, “Backlash”.

[18] Eric Posner, “The case against human rights,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights (accessed 23 February 2018).

[19] Kenneth Roth and Peggy Hicks, “Encouraging stronger engagement by emerging powers on human rights,” Open Democracy, https://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/kenneth-roth-peggy-hicks/encouraging-stronger-engagement-by-emerging-powers-on-huma (accessed 25 February 2018).

[20] Claire Daly and Mary Carson, “Nigeria: 20 million women and girls have undergone FGM,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/11/fgm-nigeria-20-million-women-and-girls-undergone-female-genital-mutilation (accessed 25 February 2018).

[21] “Nigeria: Events of 2017,” Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/nigeria (accessed 25 February 2018).

[22] Roth and Hicks, “Encouraging stronger engagement by emerging powers on human rights”.

See the full list of HART Prize for Human Rights 2018 winners and shortlisted entries here

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