Human Rights

Human Rights

Old Problems, New Possibilities

Edited by David Kinley, Wojciech Sadurski and Kevin Walton

Reflecting on the various dichotomies through which human rights have traditionally been understood, this book takes account of recent developments in both theories of rights and in international human rights law to present new ways of thinking about some long-standing problems.

Chapter 5: Universalism and particularism in human rights: trade-off or productive tension?

Neil Walker

Subjects: law - academic, human rights, law and society, politics and public policy, human rights


The enormous but conflicted growth of human rights since World War II has been closely bound up with the parallel growth of both universalistic and particularistic ways of thinking about the sources, forms and frontiers of our ethical commitments in global political discourse. Today the relationship between the universal and the particular in political thinking and belief systems remains key to understanding the feasibility, desirability and future shape of global human rights protection. It is a complex relationship, one that combines mutual support with mutual antagonism. On the one hand, most who take human rights seriously, whether as objective moral truth or as socially constructed consensus, believe there is an internal connection between the very idea of human rights – with its strong suggestion of the equal worth of all humans – and a common standard of protection, with all that this connection implies by way of universal claims. On the other hand, and partly due to the same background considerations of political modernity – namely equal value and equal respect for all expressions of individual and collective autonomy in contradistinction to the pre-modern emphasis upon conformity to a pre-given ‘order of things’ – many believe that any rights-regarding regulatory architecture must accommodate difference, and so particularize, in a manner that qualifies or even challenges the underlying universalism.

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