When the United Nations drafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it established a vision of peak humanity, articulating what the assembly considered appropriate rules for freedom, justice, and peace in the world. The rights—among them the freedom of thought, assembly, and religion—were designed in part to address the violence of the early 20th century and prevent the re-emergence of government-sanctioned horrors like the Holocaust.
However noble and well-intentioned the declaration was, it is a mistake to paint in such broad strokes. The underlying causes of violence in different circumstances and areas of the world are too varied to be addressed by a single, universal set of prescriptions. There is no all-encompassing solution that can successfully address the complex and diverse contexts and frameworks of violence. International law was founded on the notion that humanity can and should be governed by higher norms such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is both wrong and dangerous. A one-size-fits-all application of rights can actually give rise to violence and provide an institutional defense of domination.
Take the example of Sierra Leone, the West African country whose civil war became international news in the 1990s as a result of mass amputations, blood diamonds, and the widespread conscription of child soldiers. After the war ended in 2002, the U.N. stepped in to help establish a functional democracy, in part by guaranteeing the enforcement of human rights during the country’s 2007 election.
Observers hailed that election as “free and fair,” in spite of the fact that voters were often harassed and many polling places had their votes cancelled because of ballot box stuffing. Sierra Leoneans, understandably, were disappointed. They saw the election as disastrous—precisely because the U.N. had insisted on the sacredness of human rights even though these rights subtly upended local norms governing political processes. The U.N.’s guarantees of freedom of movement, speech, and assembly resulted in gangs of youth feeling free to “campaign” for politicians by intimidating and harassing voters at the polling places and threatening violence if the vote did not go their way. Many people were too afraid of being publicly beaten to cast their votes, and local lawmakers argued that the protection provided by international norms had overwhelmed the people’s most important right: to choose their leaders. Thousands of people had been disenfranchised because of a decontextualized, blanket protection of rights.
By 2012, the U.N. had phased out its active participation, and Sierra Leone ran its first presidential election without the organization’s help since the civil war. I was there to watch. In informal conversations, international observers initially told me that they were skeptical of Sierra Leone’s new election laws, which suspended freedom of movement, speech, and assembly before and during election day. They called Sierra Leone’s democracy “immature” and “flawed,” and hoped that the country would “grow up” enough to reinstate human rights. In the days before the election, members of international delegations implied that Sierra Leone was too childish—too primitive—to have real democracy.
A different story emerged on the ground, as political parties and voters embraced the suspension of human rights. Every citizen I spoke to supported the move, as they stated the most important thing an election could do was ensure that they could “vote what is in my heart.” Peace meant suspending business, stopping traffic, and keeping political party offices closed on the day of the election in a unified public display of the singular importance of everyone’s vote. In the end, the same observers who had at first condemned the 2012 election agreed that it was, in spite of the suspension of human rights, free and fair.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with other international norms aiming to squelch violence, should not be seen as sacred monoliths. They have been written through their own cultural lenses, with their own biases, and should not be expected to serve as global standards for peaceful conduct. In fact, it is presumptuous and culturally insensitive to state that rights are, or should be, “universal.” In many places and situations, other, often older, localized cultural forms have emerged from the same desire to govern well, and they should be treated as important and useful aspects of the effort to achieve peace.