Are Human Rights ‘Universal’?

Human rights use to be a domestic issue championed by its proponents with each state separately, however, this has grown drastically and relatively q

Canada and the United States may be the most extreme case of the small nation, big neighbor syndrome but when asked to point the main differences between the two countries, more than 70 people from both the sides said that Canada is just like a shadow of America. But what makes them make this confound argument? On what basis have they decided that they are the same? And on the other hand why does the rest of the 30% think that they are different? Going against all the odds, I would like to oppose the fact that Canadian Values are becoming Americanized by evaluating healthcare, the global culture and the free trade agreement between the two countries.

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Since the early 90’s, the US has been successful in making a security system for the elder people, a medical help for the welfare recipients which can be called disorganized as there was no public funding in the health care center for the rest of the population. Canada on the other hand relied on a constitutionally entrenched system of equalization transfers from “have” to “have-not” provinces to balance roughly welfare state provisions, while the US adopted no such approach. . When needed, it is easy for Citizens of Canada to get healthcare or needs some assistance from welfare then it is easily available. The United States have said that they desire to have the same. Along with universal health care, Canada’s welfare system is distinct from the United States. As Bashevkin pointed out, Canada’s remain even while the United States’ remain uneven.

Canada is portrayed as an executive political system with different languages and various significant regional bonds, where legislative, executive and judicial power and control lies largely in the hands of the prime minister.” This horizontally centralized control system allows Canadian political elites in a majority government to impose their preferences more readily than executives in a horizontally decentralized case like the US, where a constitutional separation of powers creates multiple veto points across the three branches of government. In a more racially divided society with a diffuse congressional regime, American presidents are generally unable to command the concentrated institutional levers available to their Canadian counterparts.

My next argument will state about the free trade argument between the two countries and its evaluation.

Since before Confederation, Canada’s national identity has been defined in part by its relation- ship to the United States. In Canada, this relationship has been characterized by divisive tensions between believers in the economic benefits of closer commercial relations with the US and those who have feared that free trade would “Americanize” Canada, either literally in the form of joining the union or figuratively in terms of values and culture. These conflicts have been particularly evident over the past 15 years, as Canada entered into the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement in 1988, which was expanded six years later to include Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Opponents of these agreements argued that they would cause jobs to be lost, wages to decline, inequality to increase, Canada’s national identity to be undermined, and the capacity to forge distinctive policies to be vitiated. Proponents of free trade claimed that it would foster tremendous economic benefits and vehemently denied that it would lead to the Americanization of Canada.

For Canada, globalization is effectively 80 percent Americanization. That figure represents the percentage of Canadian exports that go to the United States. Clearly, it is too simplistic to reduce the complex nature of US influence to trade relations. Nonetheless, that percentage is an effective representation of the importance of the United States in Canada’s external relations with the world. Indeed, when one considers the cultural content of the media to which Canadians are exposed, the 80 percent figure is probably conservative. The main theme of the North American integration research for the Project on Trends is that the consequences of continental integration have not been as formidable as widely believed. Despite a sharp rise in trade dependence as a result of the Free Trade Agreement and growing American dominance of global media, the border between the two countries still matters. Admittedly, some policy instruments have been surrendered in exchange for access to larger markets. In addition, pressures for harmonization do exist, and have probably in- creased. But Canada still retains significant room to manoeuvre even in the areas of policy most affected by growing economic integration. (Hoberg, G. 350)

The next argument is related to Globalization and Culture.

With its awe-inspiring characteristics like limited government, an open society and Internationalism, Canada holds a position somewhere between France and United States when it comes to Cultural Politics. Just like India and Nepal, Canada and United States practice International Culture co-operation by engaging themselves in bipartite and multipartite activities.

Like Kevin V. MULCAHY said that it represents an interesting case when countries like Canada-United States define statements like “where you sit determines where you stand.” For the United States, culture is judged generally to be a sidebar in the spectrum of politics among nations, as cultural expression is more often considered to be a commodity than a value of identity. For Canada, culture is a much more central concern in its bilateral relations with the United States given this asymmetrical relationship.

The International trade agreement has really affected the cultural, political and economic relations between the two countries, to a limit that is very unusual but the artistic provisions of such a commitment, the work process of the cultural sector can clearly raise a debate on this political subject of Canadian Values becoming Americanized. Even though Canada is sensitive about its identification and coherence, there is awareness and the cultural practices ARE given a lot of importance.

The counter arguments:

Virtually, the cultural relations of these 2 peas in a pod may have their own identity in their own divergent and heterogeneous ways between power and smaller neighbor commonality, their adjoining population and keeping in mind the geographical condition of Canada. This may conclude for many others that Cultural, Rational and Political mix of Canadian Values and Culture stand more on the side of dependency of the United States.

As is often the case, where a small nation has a big neighbor, geographic propinquity can create awkward, even difficult, cultural relations. (De la Garde, Gilsdorf, and Wechselmann, 1993) None of this is to suggest a loss of Canadian political sovereignty. Yet, Canada has had to grapple with a persistent stereotype of being the “fifty-first American state.” As such, colonialism (the cultural dominance of a stronger power over another) persists in its post-colonial era: moreover, there is a significant question about whether political sovereignty can be sustained without cultural independence and the concomitant value of individual identity. In sum, how can a distinct Canadian identity thrive in the face of a hegemonic American culture?

Evidence- Canada does not have that unique point which acts as an advantage of differentiating them and giving them an edge over the other countries like the United States does. For example barely one percent of the movies that Americans watch are foreign (Mulcahy,2003).

The attitude and their vast cultural diversities that American Industry has, galvanizes the fact about the Americanization of Canada.

The US has clearly been dominating the Canada Free Trade agreement since the beginning of this new decade. The rivalry with the UK and US were preety much the same since the early 19th Century but after the Second World War there was a clear increase in trade with the US. The imports were measurable but the imports were much more from the US then it was from the UK. The world war had clearly left a major impact on the trade and the economic policies. The markets were devastated as 70% of the imports for Canada came from the US.

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In the wake of the Free Trade Agreement, there was a sharp (15 percentage point) increase in Canada’s dependence on trade with the US. In 1998, total exports constituted a staggering 40 percent of GDP, with the US accounting for 84 percent of that total,

Or 33 percent of GDP. Thus, while trade dependence was quite high previously, the current levels of trade dependence, globally and on the US in particular, are record setting.

The Rebuttal

Although small in population, Canada is home to two major linguistic societies and may be ideally positioned to mediate a global cultural perspective that is an alternative to the hegemony of American entertainment. A hybrid Canadian culture, which is post-colonial, bi-lingual and multi-cultural, could serve as a model for other nations that seek to retain their heritage and identity without retreating into autarchy or dependency.

Like Kevin said Unlike Canada, the United States does not have such a distinct society, which

Accounts for about 22% of its population. Accordingly, Canadian commitment to

Multiculturalism has had to accommodate both individual rights and collective rights. In the U.S., everyone is legally equal to be American. In Canada, one is guaranteed the right to be Canadian, as well as the right to retain one’s ascriptive identity. In this sense, Canada has had significant experience with policies that protect cultural diversity. Canadian culture does not rest as heavily on American principles of assimilation and homogenization; rather, there is accommodation and heterogeneity. As a broad generalization, Canada is a cultural mosaic in contrast to the American melting pot.

Talking about the Free Trade Agreement, I agreed Canada has a few tough choices to make and the road ahead is not smooth but it is attainable. The Free Trade Area of the Americas is under negotiation, but the US Congress denied President Clinton the “fast-track authority” necessary to get Americans properly engaged. Nonetheless, the momentum still appears to be in the direction of increasing rather than decreasing international economic integration. Given the geography of trade, it seems unlikely that even if these agreements fail to go forward, the close integration of the Canadian and US economies is likely to change in any fundamental way.

Conclusion: Being a part of North America and sitting right on the North of North America, it is not surprising that many might believe that Canada is slowly turning to be a sub-nation or is becoming Americanized but considering the facts like healthcare, welfare, the free trade agreement and other policies and various other elements of the political culture of this country would clearly define them to be different then the United States of America.

Even the free trade agreement gives Canada quite an edge over the US. The imports might have been higher as compared to the exports in the early 2000 but ever since after that the imports have been similar to the exports i.e. 70%..

The culture of Canada is totally different as compared to the United States even though they celebrate the same festivals the way they celebrate is different and differences like these affect a lot and leave a major impact when differentiating the two countries.

The culture has always been kind of similar but that does not mean that Canada is becoming Americanized. The government is totally different and the only part which I think is becoming Americanized is that Canada has more Starbucks now than it used to.


uickly into a movement that asserts that these human rights are universal and all human beings are born with them. However this essay will argue that human rights are not universal due to their nature being bound up in charters which are not seen as Universalist but in many instances are seen as Western championed beliefs. However, the universality of human rights lays with the strength of the popular support for universal human rights, therefore, if the ideas in which universal human rights are founded on flourish then this can outweigh all its shortcomings. The first paragraph in this essay will focus on the extent to which the idea and norms of universal human rights has flourished. This essay will then critique human rights from a cultural perspective arguing that human rights are not universal due to their being conflict between the rights of the individuals and the rights of groups. Finally this essay will argue that the lack of adherence to these so called universal human rights (especially by western states) have dealt a huge blow to the notion of their being universal human rights.

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In order to look at the question of whether human rights are universal we have to analyse the extent to which the norms and ideas of human rights are universal. Today these rights exists within the legal system of international charters and domestic constitutions, however in the past human rights were seen as ‘natural laws’ which were not bound by any legal system, state or civilization as these were our God given rights. However, from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) onwards the ideas of human rights have grown into the acceptance by most nations that there are inherent human rights which people are born with such as the right to life. It is argued today that international human rights ‘have become constitutive elements of modern and “civilised” statehood (Risse-Kappen, 2002: 234). States did not sign up to the human rights declaration in 1948 due to their synonymous beliefs but instead they agreed because they believed the material benefits would outweigh its disadvantages and that they would be allowed to pull out whenever they wished. However, the international norms surrounding the human rights regime grew to the extent that these nations became entrenched into the regime due to the growth in the norms and ideas of human rights in the international society. However much the human rights regime has grown today and become the popular belief of Western societies it is not universal as it has failed to gain a strong foothold in non western territories and cultures.

It is argued by critics of the universalism of human rights that human rights are deeply rooted in Western liberal tradition, both historically and culturally. In order for human rights to be universal it is essential that human rights stretches beyond all borders cultures and religions, however, human rights today is very Eurocentric. Cultural theorists

‘critique the existing human rights corpus as culturally exclusive in some respects and therefore view parts of it as illegitimate or, at the very least, irrelevant in non-western societies… they do not believe that a genuine universal human rights truth can be constructed from any one single culture.’ (Mutua, 2002:43)

This cultural theorist argument is very convincing as human rights today needs to be reformed with a multicultural approach in order to make it more universal.

The universalist theory of human rights is based on a Western philosophy and it centres around the individual. These theorists argue for a set of rights which they are born with and pre exist society. ‘Since the late eighteenth century it has become a commonplace in liberal societies to assert that individuals possess rights… that are inalienable and unconditional’ (Brown 1999: 104). With the foundations of the human rights regime being individualistic it has alienated big groups whom do not conform to some of those rights. These contradictions can be found in religious groups. Saudi Arabia Abstained from the vote on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN in 1948 due to Article 18 contravening both Saudi laws (practising other religions within Saudi Arabia) but also the tenants of Islam which does not recognise the right to apostasy. This shows that certain human rights may be seen as rights for the West however other nations or groups of people may not deem those rights as rights at all. Huntington stresses the contradiction between the word and deed of Westerners, when he says

“Non-Westerners … do not hesitate to point to the gaps between Western principle and Western action. Hypocrisy, double standards, and ‘but nots’ are the price of universalist pretensions. … human rights are an issue for China but not with Saudi Arabia; … Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle.” (1996: 184)

Islam at the moment is not compatible with the international human rights regime as there are many contradictions between the two. As Huntington says there are a lot of double standards’ in the international community which give special provisions to certain countries which are deemed to be friends of the West such as Saudi Arabia. This shows how human rights are not universal but instead mainly Western and gaps between human rights and Islam will remain unless there is a big overhaul in the regime and human rights are created with a better understanding of different cultures, religions and ideological values.

One major critique of the universalism of human rights is the contemporary problem of compliance. As discussed previously there are many double standards on the issue of human rights with certain countries being allowed to get away with non adherence, however, when Western nations are also not adhering the consensus on the universalism of human rights is challenged and deeply wounded. Take for example the war on terror today. There are a few fundamental questions to be asked. When does a government go too far in evading people’s rights? What rights can be evading for the greater good? Can governments find a way to respect human rights whilst fighting the so called war on terror? If there was a set answer for these questions one could argue that

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When it comes to the war on terror the rules and beliefs of human rights are effectively thrown out of the window. Civilians came under attack with practices such as renditions and torture in places such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib without access to lawyers or courts. When many people talk about the USA today it is hard not to get images of Jack Bauer the counter terrorism agent out of 24 torturing people and breaking the law continually. This lack of adherence by the USA which is the sole hegemonic power today and the leader of the free world has been one of the main reasons for human rights not being universal.

“Seven years after 9/11 it is time to take stock and repeal abusive laws and policies,” the former Irish president said, warning that harsh U.S. detentions and interrogations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba gave a dangerous signal to other countries that could easily follow suit. (Reuters, accessed 22nd March)

This is now the case with many countries using the facade of the war on terror to hide their own internal human rights abuses as the ‘United States and its western allies are turning a blind eye to abuses in friendly countries in return for their support in the campaign against terror.’ (BBC News, accessed 22nd March)

Today extreme human rights violations are seen as being a matter for the international community through institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC’s indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir is a fundamental step for the eventual universality of human rights (International Crises Group, accessed 22nd March). However it is still important to note that even though this was a big step the ICC and this road to the universality of human rights is still far away as one can argue that with three of the VETO powers in the UN (China, USA and Russia) and no major Asian power signing up to the ICC, there is still a long way to go in ensuring that the human rights regime is seen outside of the West as being legitimate, universal and representative.

This essay has argued throughout that human rights are not universal. The first paragraph in this essay focused on the extent to which the idea and norms of universal human rights has flourished. It then critiqued human rights from a cultural perspective arguing that human rights are not universal due to their being conflict between the rights of the individuals and the rights of groups. This essay finally argued that the lack of adherence to these so called universal human rights have dealt a huge blow to the notion of their being universal human rights.


  • BBC News, War on terror ‘curbing human rights’, 22nd March 2010,
  • Brown, Chris, (1999), “Universal Human Rights: A Critique”, in Dunne, Tim and J. Wheeler, Nicholas, Human Rights in Global Politics, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Huntington, Samuel P. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster International Crises Group, The ICC Indictment of Bashir: A turning point for Sudan?, 22nd March 2010,
  • Mutua, Makau (2002), Human Rights, A Political & Cultural Critique, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press Reuters, U.S. “war on terror” eroded rights worldwide: experts, 22nd March 2010,
  • Risse-Kappen, Thomas, (2002), The power of human rights: International Norms and Domestic Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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